Did the Fiesta Bowl Tell Us Anything About Thursday?

January 6, 2009

Once again, a Big 12 offense has underperformed its expected value based on its and its opposing defenses’ play all year. Texas projected to score 36.5 points, but ended up with only 24.

Kansas is still the only Big 12 offense to exceed its expected point value, and again, it was against a cratering Minnesota team. Oklahoma projects to get about 38 points, and I wouldn’t call it a stretch to think that Florida could hold the Sooners under that if they show up ready to play as a D.

Run defense was an early talking point in the game, as someone on Fox’s research staff pulled out the gem that the Longhorns had seen the fewest rushes of any defense. This tidbit was to point out how pass-heavy the Big 12 was this season.

I looked it up, and the NCAA stats that are currently available include all games through the Sugar Bowl. Even with everyone getting their bowls counted and Texas not, UT did indeed face the fewest rushes. They saw 317 runs against them, with second place being TCU who saw 355 rushes.

What about percentage though? Maybe Texas just didn’t see that many plays run against it thanks to its great offense being on the field a lot.

Well, Texas saw the lowest rush percentage too with opponents running just 40.5% of the time against them. The strong Texas D-line combined with a really young secondary was probably the reason behind this. The pass-happy Big 12 did help some, but it’s not the whole story.

Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Missouri all ended up in the bottom ten of opponents rush percentage along with Texas, and five teams in the bottom ten is a trend, not an outlier. Even so, Alabama and Iowa from the quarterback-challenged SEC and Big Ten were also in the bottom ten. Florida clocked in at 21st-lowest opposing run percentage.

The conference doesn’t explain it all. The fact these teams (Iowa excepted) got up big early and often meant that opponents were forced to pass more often. That’s a main reason why who finishes a game with the most passing yards is generally a poor predictor of who won the game, while the team that rushes for more yards is a much better one.

The fact that Texas’ players didn’t see a power rushing attack all season had more to do with Beanie Wells’ early success than a flat lack of running plays in general. Will Muschamp has seen plenty in his day, and he knows what to do against them, but it’s different when you experience it in a live game. Besides, the fact that Wells is simply a gifted back had something to do with it too.

So what about Thursday? The fact that Oklahoma saw a relatively low number of rushing plays probably means nothing either. Florida has actually seen fewer, at 411 to the Sooners’ 425. OU also saw a power-oriented rush attack against TCU and did fine, holding the Frogs to 2.9 yards per rush. TCU doesn’t use option the way Florida does and certainly doesn’t have a power-running quarterback like Tim Tebow, but the Oklahoma defense does get to go up against the monstrous Oklahoma offensive line in practice.

It’s basically a non-issue, even if it is a nice bit of trivia.

As has been reported, Florida’s defense is much higher in the national rankings than Oklahoma’s is. It is also considerably higher than Texas’ defense too, and the ‘Horns tied for holding OU to its lowest point output of the year.

Florida’s defense is practically even with where Ohio State was going into this game, and we saw that the Buckeyes held Texas to 17 points for more than 59 minutes.

Florida’s offense is considerably better in just about every quantifiable way than Ohio State’s is. Yes, that even includes rushing as the Gators rush for more yards a game and at 5.96 to 4.59, they get almost a yard and a half more per rush.

Throw all those together and mix them around and it points to a Florida win. In reality though, will it blend? We’ll find out.

In the game of Will it Blend, Tom always wins.


An Oklahoma DB Falls Into the Trap

January 5, 2009

One side effect of the circus that perpetually surrounds Tim Tebow is that he doesn’t get to lead a normal life, or even a normal one for a football player. I am fairly sure most of his teammates like John Brantley and Janoris Jenkins get to walk around without getting noticed. Tebow hasn’t been able to do that since he first got to campus in January 2006.

Another side effect is that opposing defenders hear about him. A lot. They hear about him to the point of frustration, as though every mention of Tebow’s name is a shot at their ability and pride.

For Sooner CB Dominique Franks, the boiling point has come and gone:

“If you look at the three best quarterbacks in the country, they came from the Big 12…

With us being in Florida and playing against Florida, everybody’s going to think Tebow should have won the Heisman. But the right person won the Heisman, and we’re going to go out there and show everybody the reason why he won it…

Going into a game and knowing a quarterback’s going to throw the ball 40 times a game versus coming into a game and knowing he’s probably only going to throw it about 15 or 20… It makes it a lot harder to prepare for those [Big 12] guys…

Hopefully, he’ll throw me the ball a couple of times, and I can get my hands on it.

Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy also decided to say that Tebow “really knows what he’s doing, but I think we’re prepared enough that we’ll know what they’re doing as well as they know it.”

OU defensive coordinator Bret Venables did a nice job of backtracking, saying that Franks hasn’t watched enough tape yet, that Franks is confident in his teammates, and that the team as a whole is confident in their process.

That’s all well and good, but this bowl season hasn’t been kind on Big 12 offenses so far. Bowl games are never good enough evidence to outweigh a regular season’s lot of games, but Kansas has the only offense from the conference that has outperformed what would be expected given theirs and their opponent’s season averages (see calculation method here). Not only that, but KU did it against a reeling Minnesota team that was nowhere near as good as its stats would have you believe.

That fact would at least a little bit cast some doubt on the value of the Big 12 quarterbacks’ stats that Franks was touting. While I agree that Sam Bradford was worthy of winning the Heisman, I have a feeling the Florida team as a whole would take exception with how he stated that notion.

As for the part about preparing for pass numbers, he is quite a bit off. The way that Florida does its run/pass option plays is different than how anyone he’s seen does it, and Florida has probably the best set of run blocking receivers in the country. On top of that no quarterback in the country (much less the Big 12) matches Tebow’s power running game, so his unique usage by the Florida offensive staff would indicate he requires more preparation from opposing defenses, not less.

I also appreciate that Gerald McCoy believes his team will be ready. I’m sure they will be since Oklahoma has a great defensive staff. However FSU DC Mickey Andrews knew what was coming in his second attempt at stopping the Tebow-led offense, and UF put up 45 points. Georgia’s DC Willie Martinez in his second crack at it gave up 49 points. South Carolina’s Ellis Johnson, a widely-respected defensive coordinator in his own right, gave up 49 in his first attempt.

Knowing what’s coming and stopping it are two different things. Everyone knew what Alabama was going to do on offense all year, and only two teams stopped it well enough to pull out wins.

Finally, Franks probably doesn’t understand what he did in falling into the trap of publicly trash talking Tim Tebow. Big No. 15 and his teammates don’t take it lightly. Here are a few examples of what happens when people publicly run their mouths about him:

  1. In November 2007, LB Geno Hayes said before the UF-FSU game that Tebow was “going down,” and “the bigger they are the harder they fall.” Florida won the game 45-12.
  2. At Tennessee’s media day prior to this season, DT Demonte Bolden said, “Man, I don’t care about Tebow. Yeah, he’s an All-American, but he’s a regular player. Get him back on the field. You know what I’m saying. I made hits on him last year. This year, I’m going to get back to him a lot quicker.” Florida won the game 30-6, and only the two teams’ run-heavy offenses and the new clock rules kept it from being worse as Florida scored on six of its seven non-garbage time drives.
  3. No one from Miami called out Tebow by name that I could find, but the Hurricanes talked plenty of trash. C Xavier Shannon (head coach Randy’s son) said he wanted “to show [the Gators] the University of Miami still rules the state of Florida,” and S Anthony Reddick wondered, “[a]re they going to be able to match up with our defense?” Florida won the game 26-3, and Miami was fortunate to get the three.
  4. LSU DT Ricky Jean-Francois said this season that if he and his fellow linemen got a good look at Tebow, “we’re going to try our best to take him out of the game.” Florida won the contest 51-21 and Jean-Francois didn’t even travel to Gainesville for the game due to injury.
  5. South Carolina LB Eric Norwood promised Florida would not score 40 on his defense. He also predicted he’d get a sack and that it was “definitely going to hurt.” Norwood did get a sack, but it was his Gamecocks who got a hurting to the tune of 56-6.

It is not a trap that the Florida players or coaches set, but it’s a trap that Franks fell into. His temperament couldn’t take hearing about Tebow anymore, and he ran his mouth promising doom for the Gators’ signal caller.

We’ll see if he and his fellow defenders can back it up, but history is not on his side.


Let the BCS Fretting Continue (For Real, This Time)

December 1, 2008

The latest BCS standings are in, and like last week Florida is No. 4. That really is not surprising, given that Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma all won in blowouts just like the Gators did.

Here’s the problem that makes this week more precarious than last week: beating FSU did almost nothing for Florida’s standing in the computer rankings. Granted, FSU wasn’t all that high in the BCS rankings at No. 20, but they were a team the computer polls liked better than the humans. The algorithms had the Seminoles at No. 18 overall.

But then, a lot of Florida’s past opponents happened to lose to teams with similar or worse records. Miami lost to NC State, LSU lost to Arkansas, Kentucky lost to Tennessee, Georgia lost to Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt lost to Wake Forest, and South Carolina lost to Clemson. None of those outcomes were friendly to the Gators, leaving only two vanquished teams (Georgia and FSU) with more than seven wins on the season.

So, Florida moved up just .03 in the computer rankings in the BCS. No sweat though, just beat consensus No. 1 Alabama and we’re in the title game, right? Well not so fast there cowboy, because Alabama fell to No. 3 in the computer rankings behind both Texas and Oklahoma. It would certainly be the best win for the Gators all year, but it carries less weight this week than it did last week.

After all, the human polls are generally nothing to worry about. They will likely have the Big 12 and SEC champs in the top two slots with a noticeable gap between No. 2 and No. 3. The computer polls however still have Florida at No. 6. An upset of Texas Tech by Baylor would have helped a lot, as the Red Raiders are still ranked above Florida in all but one computer poll.

As UF is already No. 2 in the Harris Poll, a win would put the Gators at No. 1 there. The Coaches Poll dropped Florida to No. 4 as the voters all focused on Texas and Oklahoma this week. That one could get a little hairy.

Best as I can tell, here are the possible outcomes for this weekend with the attached implications for the Gators. Obviously a loss to Alabama knocks them out of the national title race, so I’m not even going to go over it.

BEST CASE SCENARIO

Big 12 Championship Game: Oklahoma loses to Missouri

SEC Championship Game: Just win, baby. Doesn’t matter how.

Outcome: Texas and Florida in the national title game. Clean and simple.

WORST CASE SCENARIO

Big 12 Championship Game: Oklahoma barely squeaks by Missouri on something controversial or fluky.

SEC Championship Game: Florida barely squeaks by Alabama on something controversial or fluky.

Outcome: Human voters have a crisis of conscience, wondering if Texas should have gone to the Big 12 Championship Game instead of Oklahoma. There is a general sympathy towards the Longhorns, and some try to rectify the perceived mistake by voting them in the national title game. Florida takes No. 1 in the Harris Poll but comes out No. 2 or (gulp) No. 3 thanks to those warring factions. The computers continue to hate Florida, and we get a rematch of Texas and Oklahoma.

SOMETHING IN BETWEEN, V. 1

Big 12 Championship Game: Oklahoma demolishes Missouri.

SEC Championship Game: Florida barely squeaks by Alabama.

Likely Outcome: A gaudy blowout by the Sooners assuages the minds of the humans. They all stick to the script of Big 12 vs. SEC in the national title game and there is a noticeable gap between the top two and No. 3 Texas. The computers (who cannot look at margin of victory) will still have Florida a spot or two behind Texas, but the gap in the human polls is too much to overcome. Florida gets in the national title game by a razor-thin margin.

SOMETHING IN BETWEEN, V. 2

Big 12 Championship Game: Oklahoma barely squeaks by Missouri on something controversial or fluky.

SEC Championship Game: Florida solidly beats or blows out Alabama.

Possible Outcome 1: Human voters agree on having Florida in the national title game, but they waffle on Texas and Oklahoma. Gators are No. 1 in one or both human polls, but the computers yawn at the win over Alabama and keep UF behind Texas Tech and Utah. Controversy keeps the Big 12 guys close, and the formulas break the tie in favor of a UT-OU rematch.

Possible Outcome 2: Human voters agree on having Florida in the national title game, but they waffle on Texas and Oklahoma. Gators are No. 1 in one or both human polls, and the computers look favorably at the win over Alabama. They have UF jump over Utah and possibly Texas Tech, and Florida plays Oklahoma for the title.

Possible Outcome 3: The humans stick to the precedent of the past two seasons and keep to the unwritten rule that requires a conference championship to go to the national title game. There is a noticeable gap between the top two and No. 3 Texas, and that is enough to make the algorithms moot. Florida plays Oklahoma.

Now, I still think Florida will most likely play for the national title with a win over Alabama no matter what else happens. It all depends two things: how impressed will the computers be with adding the Crimson Tide to the Gators’ schedule strength and whether there will be a general sympathy for Texas if Oklahoma barely defeats Missouri. We’ll get a better feeling on the status of the latter as the week goes on.

Here’s the good news, Gators. ESPN’s BCS guru Brad Edwards (who actually knows his stuff well and isn’t a chattering empty suit like Mark May) seems to agree with me on Florida’s chances. He reminds us that when it comes to the BCS, your ranking doesn’t matter as much as the points do. No. 4 UF is only 12 points behind No. 2 Oklahoma, with 1,385 points to OU’s 1,397.

We know a Gator win puts them on top of the Harris Poll, and Edwards seems to think the impact of defeating No. 1 Alabama along with any residual controversy between the Sooners and Longhorns will vault Florida to No. 1 in the Coaches’ Poll too. His theory is that if Florida is No. 1 in both human polls, that will be enough to send them to Miami instead of New Orleans. If the Gators are only No. 2 in the Coaches’ Poll though, it could spell trouble.

From my observations over the past couple years, I have noticed that the Coaches’ Poll doesn’t generally take big leaps of logic. The AP Poll tends to shuffle teams around more often, with poll inertia and lazy voting affecting the coaches’ side more.

My feeling is that, as with 2006 and 2007, the coaches will vote a Big 12 champion Oklahoma and the SEC champion No. 1 and 2 to affirm the value of winning a conference and because it’s the easiest road to take. The vast majority will do this, and I would expect to see little dissent. That is especially true since the coaches’ ballots will become public after this week’s voting.

As it is, I think Oklahoma will hammer Missouri. The Sooner machine is nearly unstoppable in the regular season against inferior competition, and they will probably lay waste to the mildly disappointing Tigers. Mizzou will not be able to protect Chase Daniel enough for him to lead the normal offense, and there is no way the defense will slow down Sam Bradford and company.

The most important thing is beating Alabama. None of this matters without winning the conference. In all likelihood, a win puts Florida at No. 1 in both human polls but still not above OU or UT in the computers. The points matter more than the rankings, remember, so how distant a No. 3 Texas becomes in the human polls will play a huge part in deciding who plays for it all.

If you are a Gator fan though, be nice to your computer this week. Don’t swear at it or abuse it. We’ll need all the help from them we can get.


Let the BCS Fretting Begin

November 23, 2008

Urban Meyer said he’d be disappointed (or something to that effect) if the Gators didn’t hit 60 points this weekend. We got to 70, so mission accomplished.

Something that will be on Gator fans’ minds this week is whether Oklahoma’s big win could put the Gators’ national title game hopes in jeopardy. It’s one thing to put up 70 on a I-AA team with the backups going most of the way, but it’s another entirely to put up 65 points on the undefeated No. 2 team.

In the short term, no one should be shocked at all to see Oklahoma pass up Florida in the standings. With LSU crashing and burning to turn a good win into just a win, it’s hard to make a case for UF to be ahead of OU. In fact, I’d be surprised if the Sooners were not the new No. 2 behind Alabama.

Now before we get too ahead of ourselves, there still are two more weeks to go before the BCS selections. Oklahoma has been known to drop shockers or Oklahoma State this decade, and it is never easy for Florida in Tallahassee. Alabama won’t be a picnic either. Throw on top of that two straight Texas A&M upsets over Texas the past two years and Missouri waiting in the Big 12 title game, and you can see the chances for peril.

No matter what happens in the Big 12 though, I still say that if Florida wins out they will go to the national title game. That is especially true if Alabama beats Auburn (which they will).

We learned in 2006 that voters as a whole do not want rematches. We saw in both 2006 and 2007 that winning your conference is an important factor too. Twice we’ve seen a Big 12 team not win the league and still go to the national title game (2001 Nebraska, 2003 Oklahoma), and both times that team lost. There’s no way voters will ignore that.

I don’t expect to see Florida get to the No. 2 spot until after a win over Alabama (should it come), because poll inertia wins until the final ballot when voters manually choose who they want to see play for it all. Texas can’t impress anymore because of how bad Texas A&M is, and the way Oklahoma beat Texas Tech will override the 10-point loss at a neutral site to the Longhorns.

In other words, rest easy Gators. All we can control is ourselves, and taking care of business should be all we need.


Guns Up

November 3, 2008

Congrats to the Texas Tech Red Raiders and their coach Mike Leach. Leach, at least when it comes to on-field philosophy, is the closest thing we have to 1990s-era Steve Spurrier in the game today. His teams are fun to watch, and now they’ve won the biggest game in school history.

I really mean that, and not just because it helped the Gators move up in the polls. Regardless of what happens, a Florida-Texas Tech bowl game would be awesome and terrifying at the same time.


A Eulogy for Defense in the Big 12

October 20, 2008

I have been saying for a while that defense is dead in the Big 12, but after this past weekend, I think we can say it is really and truly gone.

Seven of the twelve member schools hit the 30-point mark, six of them surpassing 450 yards of total offense. The two showdowns between ranked schools produced 76 and 87 points, respectively. Kansas and Oklahoma surpassed 1,000 yards between them before the third quarter was even over.

Now look, as a Gator fan who grew up in the Steve Spurrier era, I love to watch teams play pitch and catch all over the field. At some point though, you have to stop someone. After all, Spurrer didn’t win his national title until he got Bob Stoops as his defensive coordinator.

How did this happen? The old Big Eight and Southwest Conferences used to be havens of defense and running, not this wide open passing stuff with defenders helplessly waving their arms at receivers as they run by.

Part of it has to do with the pass happy spread offenses that have flourished across the Big 12’s recruiting grounds. To adapt Bill Parcells’ old line, you want to cook recipes designed for the ingredients that you shop for. If all the best high school guys are coming from spread systems, it would make sense to run an offense that fits them so you can get peak production from them.

Ironically enough, on the coaching side it may have actually come to the Big 12 from the SEC. When he took over at Oklahoma, Stoops came back to the Big 12 after being the defensive coordinator under passing game genius Steve Spurrier. He saw how well pass-heavy schemes can work with top players. He also imported Mike Leach from Kentucky to run Leach’s variant of Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense.

After one season Leach left to take over Texas Tech and Stoops got Mark Mangino as an offensive coordinator to run something similar. That combination resulted in a national championship in 2000.

Even after Mangino left to coach at Kansas, Stoops kept an offensive identity that favored lots of passing. It should be noted that Stoops and Mangino originated from the Bill Snyder coaching tree, and Snyder had some prolific offenses of his own led by guys like Michael Bishop, Ell Roberson, and Darren Sproles.

After OU’s national title, more and more guys with pass-friendly offenses found their way into the Big12, from Gary Pinkel in 2001 to Bill Callahan in 2004 to Mike Sherman in 2008. Now we stand with only three head coaches of the 12 that were not offensive coordinators or offensive assistants before becoming head coaches: Stoops, Gene Chizik, and Bo Pelini. Chizik is of course in the wastelands of Iowa State and Pelini hasn’t had enough time to turn around the disaster that Callahan left him.

Today, the highest-ranked team in total defense from the Big 12 is Oklahoma at No. 34 with 315 yards allowed per game. Only the Sun Belt Conference doesn’t have a team higher than that, and the Sooners just gave up 491 and 438 yards in back-to-back weekends.

The highest-ranked team in scoring defense from the Big 12 is Texas at No. 25 with 17 points allowed per game. Only the Sun Belt Conference and CUSA don’t have a team higher than that, and the Longhorns just gave up 31 and 35 points in back-to-back weekends. That ranking is built on things like giving up 10 points to FAU (116th in scoring offense), 10 to Arkansas (100th), and 14 to Colorado (87th).

Sure, Texas’ defensive line looked great against Mizzou. Brian Orakpo probably is unblockable against any offensive line in the country. We also must consider that the Tigers’ O-line had serious trouble against Oklahoma State, who is 108th in the country in sacks.

I don’t mean to make this out like the Big 12 is the only conference with a problem. The ACC and Big East are mired in general mediocrity all around. The Big Ten is a two-team conference thanks to the meltdowns at Michigan and Wisconsin. The Pac-10 is currently owned by the Mountain West, and despite the Trojans’ loss it looks like USC and the Nine Dwarfs again. The SEC is undergoing a lot of offensive transition, with seven schools having had a quarterback controversy at some point.

Still, for all the great quarterbacks the Big 12 has, they alone are not the reason why the Big 12 has had exploding offenses lately. There has been plenty of bad defense going around too, and it’s been that way for a couple of years now.

Say hello to the new WAC-y conference, the league that assumes the Pac-10’s old stereotype of all offense and no defense. Big 12, you’ve earned it.


College GameDay’s Picks

August 24, 2008

In case you missed the College GameDay season preview show yesterday, here’s how everyone picked. They added Lou Holtz for the preview show, but hopefully he won’t be a part of the main lineup. The three-man crew works best. As always, Chris Fowler did not make any predictions.

Lee Corso

ACC: Clemson

Big 12: Missouri

Big East: South Florida

Big Ten: Ohio State

Pac-10: USC

SEC: Auburn

National Title: USC over Missouri

Kirk Herbstreit

ACC: Clemson

Big 12: Oklahoma

Big East: South Florida

Big Ten: Ohio State

Pac-10: USC

SEC: Florida

National Title: Florida over USC

Lou Holtz

ACC: Wake Forest

Big 12: Oklahoma

Big East: Pitt

Big Ten: Ohio State

Pac-10: USC

SEC: Florida

National Title: Ohio State over Oklahoma

The funniest part of the whole thing was during the picks segment. Corso called Missouri WR Jeremy Maclin “Jeremy McLean” and Kirk nearly lost it. Fowler also messed up an into segment off a commercial break, so even the best of them need some fall practice before the season.