Potential Risers in 2008

July 29, 2008

Playing a lot of close games can be good or bad depending on your perspective. If you’re planning on being a top team, it could be bad since you’re not blowing out as many teams as you thought you would. If you’re an up-and-coming team, it could be good because that means you’re competitive in many games.

To win a lot of close games, it takes some skill and a lot of luck. You have to get some breaks in order to prevail, no matter how skilled you are. Some times you get them, some times you don’t.

Things tend to even out in college football in regards to winning close games. If you get a lot of breaks one year, you don’t tend to get them the next, and vice versa. Following that line of thinking, it is possible to use how a team does in close games in one season to pick out candidates for risers and fallers for the next season.

For instance, Rutgers and Wake Forest were big surprise teams in 2006 when they went 3-0 and 5-1 in close games. By that measure you’d expect them to fall off some, and they did, going from 11-2 and 11-3 in ’06 to 8-5 (2-2 in close games) and 9-4 (3-2) in ’07. On the other side of the coin, Missouri went 0-3 in close games in 2006 on the way to going 8-5, but it went 12-2 in 2007 thanks in part to being 2-0 in close games.

It is an inexact science of course. Teams get better and worse, their schedules change, players come and go, coaches and coordinators change, and so on. This is a list of teams that have the potential for rising; you must engage your brain from here on out to decide how well these teams will do.

For these purposes, a “close game” is defined as a game where the final score is eight points or less – in other words, one touchdown and conversion could tie or swing the game. Teams that made the main list had at least three more losses than wins; teams on the watch list had two more losses than wins and played at least four close games.

Only BCS conference teams (including Notre Dame) were analyzed.

Maryland Terrapins, 6-7 overall, 1-5 in close games

Maryland has languished in mediocrity since winning 10+ games from 2001-03. Ralph Friedgen probably needs a good season or else he could be on his way out. His team posted one of the three worst records in close games in 2007, so either his team was really close or it had poor execution.

Maryland was picked 5th in its division in 2007, precisely where it ended up, and it’s picked to do the same in 2008. If the Terps can catch some breaks though, which they apparently couldn’t a season ago, they could surprise a lot of people.

Michigan State Spartans, 7-6 overall, 2-6 in close games

Mark Dantonio was almost universally praised for the job he did in his first year in East Lansing. After three straight losing seasons, he got them above .500 and competitive in all six losses. Sparty could be set for a breakout season in 2008.

Minnesota Golden Gophers, 1-11 overall, 1-6 in close games

Minnesota’s season was a disaster last year, especially on defense. Tim Brewster has proven to be a pretty good recruiter, and he has lots of optimism for the future. And why not? Despite the poor defensive play, seven of the Gophers’ twelve games were close.

Then again, one of those close losses was to North Dakota State. Caveat emptor.

UCLA Bruins, 6-7 overall, 0-3 in close games

I would hazard a guess that most UCLA fans would attribute the poor record in close games to mismanagement by Karl Dorrell.

This team is a probably a case where the record doesn’t indicate a turnaround – the coaching staff has changed, the top two quarterbacks are hurt, and it’s debatable how much talent is on the sidelines in Westwood. Then again, Rick Neuheisel is known for quick turnarounds.

North Carolina Tar Heels, 4-8 overall, 2-6 in close games

In Butch Davis’ first year, UNC was very competitive for a 4-8 team. Only two of its eight losses were by more than one score, and that’s what you’re looking for in an up-and-coming team.

Many people are already expecting big things out of the Heels in 2008, with them having been picked second in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Their record in close games in 2007 would seem to back up those expectations, as long as things regress to the mean in Chapel Hill.

Vanderbilt Commodores, 5-7 overall, 0-3 in close games

For the second time in three seasons, Vanderbilt finished one win away from being bowl eligible for the first time since 1982. Two seasons ago the five wins came on the back of star QB Jay Cutler. Last season the five wins came despite great upheaval at the quarterback position, and the ‘Dores had three good chances to get that sixth win anyway.

Could 2008 be the season that Vandy finally breaks through? Perhaps, but lets not forget that scaring the big boys by losing close games is one of the things that defines Vanderbilt over the past couple decades.

Washington Huskies, 4-9 overall, 0-5 in close games

Ty Willingham has been working his way through a bad situation in the post-Neuheisel era. His many critics probably would attribute the 0-5 mark in close games to poor coaching and execution. Others might attribute it to having a young team and starting a freshman quarterback.

The pressure is definitely on Willingham to have a good season. If another year goes by with a poor record in close games, the folks on the “poor coaching and execution” side of the argument will probably win out.

The Watch List

Alabama Crimson Tide, 7-6 overall, 4-6 in close games

Arizona Wildcats, 5-7 overall, 2-4 in close games

Cincinnati Bearcats, 10-3 overall, 1-3 in close games

Louisville Cardinals, 6-6 overall, 3-5 in close games

Mississippi Rebels, 3-9 overall, 2-4 in close games

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The Proliferation of Non-Saturday Games

May 19, 2008

Football used to be organized neatly into three days: Friday for high school, Saturday for college, and Sunday for the professionals. Sure, sometimes the pros played on Thursdays or on Saturdays after the college season was over, but they’re money-grubbing professionals. Maximizing profit is what they do.

Then, the past few seasons drove a huge semi truck of disorganization through the scheme as colleges figured out that by playing games on days other than Saturday, they could get more exposure. Drum up some more interest in the program, as it were. ESPN, being run by money-grubbing professionals, has been more than happy to accommodate the trend.

Of course Thursday night college football has been going on since at least 1997, but in the rush to saturate life with as much football as possible, we’ve been getting football on nearly every night of the week. This fall, it continues as we will have college football on every day of the week at some point.

I’ve been going through schedules and though I haven’t finished yet, I have found some Sunday games. Louisville and Kentucky play on the Sunday before Labor Day, which makes sense seeing as how that’s before the NFL begins. UCF appears undeterred by the pros though, as it has two Sunday games in a row: at Tulsa on October 26 and against East Carolina on November 2. As far as I can tell, Labor Day is the only Monday to have a college game.

Tuesday games are rare, and a bad idea in general, but that’s not deterring Houston from meeting Marshall on Tuesday, October 28. Wednesday games also are a bad idea, but Kansas State is still traveling to Louisville on Wednesday, September 17.

There are more Thursday contests than ever it seems, as schools demonstrate a lack of understanding of the law of diminishing returns, and there’s a smattering of Friday games as well. So much for letting the high schools have their day.

The astute observer will note that Louisville’s name came up twice. There is a good reason for that – the Cardinals play only 6 Saturday games all season. Half of their games are elsewhere in the week, with three Thursday games, and one each on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday.

I suppose there must be some sort of bonus for this, more TV revenue perhaps, but if I was a Louisville fan I’d be upset. I mean, playing that many games on non-Saturdays is like begging for attention. Louisville has won a BCS game and just put a quarterback in the NFL. It shouldn’t feel the need to get so much extra attention. Plus, after what happened last year, Louisville might want to shore up the defense some before putting it on proud display.

If nothing else, the proliferation of weekday games shows that university presidents are just blowing smoke when they say that academics are part of why they oppose a playoff. We knew that already, but West Virginia sending its team all the way to Colorado for a Thursday game or Navy of all schools visiting Northern Illinois on a Tuesday proves once and for all what a sack of lies that excuse is.

Just ask Louisville.


A Quick Note on Kansas

November 24, 2007

One thing I see put forth in Kansas’ favor this year is that yeah, they have a weak schedule but at least the Jayhawks have been blowing everyone out. This is actually true – KU leads the NCAA in margin of victory at 31.62 points per game. The next highest is Boise State at 25.88 points per game.

I calculated margin of victory back to 2000 (the earliest the NCAA’s comprehensive online stats go) and found that sustaining a margin of victory of over 30 points a game is rare – never has more than one team managed to do it, and no one could do it in 2006 or 2003. The following are the teams that could do it:

2007: Kansas (31.62 points per game), 77th ranked SOS (as calculated by the NCAA)

2005: Texas** (33.75), 7th

2004: Louisville (30.05), 70th

2002: Kansas State (32.97) 49th

2001: Miami, FL** (33.78) 19th

2000: FSU* (32.12) 3rd

**Won National Championship

*Played in National Championship Game

Notice a trend? If the SOS is among the best, the team at least played for the national title, if not won it. If the SOS is not so good, the team was not in title contention.

The 2004 Louisville team appears to be the closest match to 2007 Kansas. For a refresher, 2004 Louisville romped through its final year in C-USA, lead by QB Stefan LeFors and RB Michael Bush. It lost its only game against good competition, a 41-38 classic against Miami, who would finish 9-3.

The 2002 Kansas State team had an odd year, going 11-2 but finishing second in the Big 12 North to 9-5 Colorado thanks to the Buffs having just one conference loss compared to K-State’s 2. Those Wildcats in those heady days were lead by the electric duo of QB Ell Roberson and RB Darren Sproles. The losses were to Colorado by 4 and Texas (who’d finish 11-2) by 3. They did, to their credit, have a huge 27-20 win over USC.

The point? If you run up the score that much, you’re going to finish with a nice record. After all, bad teams won’t win enough games to run it up that much, and likely aren’t able to run it up at all. However, unless you do it against a top-flight schedule, you’re probably not good enough to make the national title game. Kansas will get to play Missouri and possibly Oklahoma, which will help in the SOS department, but I doubt they’ll get higher than the 49th of ’02 KSU. Plus, with as good as the Tigers and Sooners are, it’s not likely they’ll sustain that 30+ margin of victory. It’s also overwhelmingly likely that the Jayhawks will lose in the next two weeks based on all of these facts.

One interesting thing though, is that in 2000, the top three teams in SOS were 1) Florida, 2) Miami (FL), and 3) FSU. That’s got to be a record, having the top 3 in SOS all play in the same state.


Gators Pregame: Western Kentucky

August 31, 2007

For each game this year, I am going to do my pre-game previews by running down the songs that make up the Gator band’s pre-game show.

Pregame Jaws

Florida has not lost the first game of the season since 1989, when the Gators, who would finish 7-5, lost to Ole Miss, who would finish 8-4, by a score of 24-19.

Urban Meyer Fanfare

Urban Meyer has never lost the first game of the year as a head coach. At Bowling Green, he beat Missouri 20-13 in 2001 and Tennessee Tech 41-7 in 2002. At Utah, he defeated Utah State 40-20 in 2003 and Texas A&M 41-21 in 2004. At Florida, he defeated Wyoming 32-14 in 2005 and Southern Miss 34-7 in 2006.

Orange and Blue

You’ll be hearing this song a lot on Saturday. If Florida doesn’t score on a drive for any other reason than a quarterback missing open receivers, it will be a huge upset.

Men of Florida

In this game, it’s actually not going to be a feature of the Men of Florida, but the boys. Most of the veterans should be out by various times in the second half, so all of the young players will see playing time. This game will go very similarly to the UCF and Western Carolina games of last year.

Chimes/Alma Mater

Get ready for another year of the UF marketing droids playing up The Gator Nation to try to drum up interest and donations for the ol’ Alma Mater. I hate that phrase, The _____ Nation. Don’t ask we why, I just don’t like it.

We are the Boys March

Florida’s offense should have no problems marching up and down the field. Florida’s players are better athletes than most I-A teams, so the difference between Florida and Western Kentucky, which is technically in its first I-A year in 2007, is huge. If you saw the Murray State – Louisville game last night, the Cardinals players looked like giants next to the Racers players. That’s what it’ll look like in the Swamp tomorrow.

Gators Spell Out

G: Ginormous

I hate this fake word, but it’s about the only one that can accurately describe the level of the beat down that’s coming tomorrow.

A: Auditions

A lot of young players are going to be getting plenty of audition time Saturday one the starters are done with the half or so that they’ll play.

T: Tim Tebow

Yes, national media, Tim Tebow can throw, and we’ll see him do some of that today. It won’t prove much, but it should be enough to shut a few people up.

O: One Team

There are almost no Zook players left, and those that are left, like Andre Caldwell, have fully bought into the Urban Meyer system of both on and off the field life. In Meyer’s first year, he had a lot of issues with people resisting his methods, and some of that even carried over to the beginning of 2006. No more. They’re all his team now.

R: Receivers

Florida has a ton of them, and they’re all good. It starts with Percy Harvin, but even the 7th best player in the stable could start on most teams in the country. These guys will lead the offense and put up some huge numbers this year.

S: Schedule

Florida’s schedule is nowhere near as tough as it was last year. There’s another tough stretch in the middle with Auburn, LSU, Kentucky, Georgia, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina all in a row, but Tennessee, Auburn, Vandy, and FSU are all home games this year and Alabama rotates off the schedule for Coach O and the Ole Miss Rebels.

Suwannee

The points will be flowing for the Gators like the brackish water of the river that lends its name to the final song in the preseason sequence. Enjoy it Florida fans, but for all practical purposes, Florida will still be 0-0 after this weekend since WKU is basically a I-AA team and the stats for this game should be thrown out when considering this season.

Gator football has returned. Go Gators!


Some Predictions

August 30, 2007

Here’s some off-the-cuff predictions for the season while we’re all waiting for LSU to thump Mississippi State to kick off the season…

ACC Atlantic: Boston College

ACC Coastal: Virginia Tech

ACC Champ: VT

Big 12 North: Nebraska

Big 12 South: Oklahoma

Big 12 Champ: Oklahoma

Big East Champ: West Virginia

Big Ten Champ: Michigan

Pac 10 Champ: USC

SEC East: Florida

SEC West: LSU

SEC Champ: Florida

BCS At-Larges: LSU, Wisconsin, Louisville, Hawai’i

Heisman Winner: John David Booty

Should be the Heisman Winner: Darren McFadden

Overrated: Texas

Underrated: Oklahoma State

BCS Title Game: USC and Oklahoma

National Champion: Oklahoma

Two days to go ’til Florida football. Go Gators!


The ACC

July 26, 2007

People are finally catching on to just how mediocre the ACC is, and by “people,” I mean sports writers. Many will tell you that the ACC is not the conference that the SEC is, but “take a look at how [insert a couple random ACC teams] are looking this year. They’ll be great!” There have been many excuses and short-sighted comparisons between the ACC and other conferences, but the simple fact is that it has never been that great of a football conference, especially not lately.

Back when FSU left the independent ranks to join the ACC, the theory was that by adding a serious football school it would make the other ACC teams better, and the ACC name would help make FSU’s basketball team better. In actuality, what it led to was a fraudulent streak of FSU finishing in the top-4 for 14 consecutive years during which Florida was the only elite school it faced every year – remember those were Miami’s down and probation years. FSU feasted on the weaker ACC programs that lacked (and largely still lack) complete commitment to football. Neither aspect of that plan worked, even after adding BC, Miami, and Virginia Tech. VT has been the only consistent national power since the expansion.

So back to the writers. I ran across these links somewhere on the GatorSports.com message board (I think) and now I can’t find them, so thanks to whoever that was who put them together. SI.com’s Stewart Mandel and the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Bob Lipper are the two writers. They both document how bad the ACC has been of late. I will now go over the important stats.

ACC teams went 6-16 against other BCS-level teams last year.

ACC teams ended up losing by an average of just a field goal, but that hides the real story. In each victory, the ACC team won by at least 10 points. In all but one case, it absolutely should have been a 10-point margin of victory. Of the ACC’s 6 wins, three were by Wake Forest playing the dregs of the Big East and SEC in Syracuse, UConn, and Ole Miss. Another was VT playing another mediocre Big East team, Cincinnati. Another was FSU demolishing an unmotivated UCLA team that basically had already played its bowl game when it beat USC. That leaves Maryland beating Purdue in a bowl, and those teams were roughly even. So, you’ve got one win in a relatively evenly-matched game. In those wins, the average score was 28-14.

Of the losses, the only real mismatches were Duke’s two losses, Maryland’s loss to West Virginia, Miami’s loss to Louisville, and UNC’s loss to Notre Dame. That leaves 11 games where the ACC team had a reasonable shot at winning and failed to do so. In all, the ACC teams were beat on average by 11 points, 30-19, in the losses. Basically, the ACC just plain got beat up by the other conferences.

ACC teams are 3-31 (!) against top-10 opponents since 2000.

I was only able to find schedule/results with rankings at the time on ESPN.com, and it only goes back to 2002. I believe they use the coaches’ poll for rankings. I’ll save you the counting – there’s 25 games listed, with the ACC 1-24 in them. Two games I know are not on this list are the 2002 Orange Bowl when Florida destroyed Maryland in Steve Spurrier’s last game as Gators coach, and the national title game in 2000 where FSU did absolutely nothing in losing to Oklahoma 13-2.

Now, there’s all kinds of problems when you look at how teams were ranked at the time they played. I mean, if the Devil Rays sweep the Royals in the first series of the season, then the Yankees beat the Rays in the next game, does New York boast that it beat a first-place team? Of course not. The only thing that really matters is looking at end of the year ranks, and diligently searching for special cases (like USC beating Arkansas last year before the Pigs knew what they were doing).

An example in this case would be that Notre Dame was a top-10 ranked team when it played Georgia Tech last year, and Notre Dame most definitely was not one of the 10 best teams in 2006. Still, ND was No. 2 at the time, so GT’s loss in that game gets counted towards this stat. However, by having that be the case, the ACC comes out looking even worse because it couldn’t find success against even the false top-10 teams. The games on average haven’t been close either, with the the average final score being 29-17. That’s really bad.

The ACC has won only one BCS game.

The writers put this one as “The ACC champion has lost its last seven bowl games,” but why stop at seven? The ACC’s 1-8 record in BCS games is by far the worst of any conference, leaving it with the same number of BCS wins as the Mountain West Conference and WAC. The Big 12 is the only other conference under .500 (5-7). In addition, the ACC has never sent more than one team to the BCS, with the Big East the only other Big 6 conference to have failed to do so as well. The Big Ten has done it 6 times, the SEC has done it 4 times, the Big 12 has done it 3 times, and the Pac-10 has done it twice. The best winning percentage goes to the SEC (9-4, .692), followed by the Pac-10 (7-4, .637), Big East (5-4, .556), and Big Ten (8-7, .533).

But I digress. The ACC’s streak of futility in bowls is Notre Dame-ian, to coin a term, and it is mainly caused by the decline of FSU since 2000. With FSU falling back to the pack as a result of its top assistant coaches leaving for head coaching jobs, there suddenly was nothing special about the ACC champion. Another factor though is the league’s champions have often been put in some tough spots.

In 2000, FSU never really should have been in that national title game with Oklahoma, and the 11 point margin doesn’t really tell the story of how much better Oklahoma was. In 2001, Maryland ran into the Spurrier-Grossman buzz saw, and the rest is history. The 2002 Georgia team that FSU met would have played for the national title had it not lost to Florida. That 2003 bowl game was a rematch between the champions of the two worst BCS conferences. In 2004, Virginia Tech met an Auburn team that was unhappy about not being in the national title game (which almost always leads to the team in VT’s situation to victory) and still lost. The 2005 FSU team quite possibly is the worst major conference champion in history. The 2006 Wake Forest team got lucky throughout the regular season, and then got humbled by a much better Louisville team.

Long story short, being the ACC champion means absolutely nothing in bowl games, except possibly that you’re going to lose. While the ACC champion has faced some truly tough spots (2000 – 2002, 2006), it also should be noted that the ACC team in question in those years was not really an elite team.

Conclusion

The ACC is at the bottom of the BCS. It has more quality teams than the Big East, but it also has four more teams than the Big East has. At least the Big East has some legit powers in Louisville, West Virginia, and probably Rutgers at the top. Only Virginia Tech probably fits that mold right now in the ACC.

Why is that? Well, for one, it’s a basketball conference and always will be. Second, it just doesn’t have the coaching that other conferences do. Bobby Bowden is the only head coach in the league with a national title, and probably the best head coach in the league, Butch Davis, hasn’t even coached his first game at UNC. Also, it’s in the same region as the SEC, which has more money, bigger stadiums, more tradition, and better coaches taking a lot of the best recruits in the region. The ACC has the funds, facilities, and fans to make sure that any ideas of the ACC falling behind a mid-major conference like the WAC are laughably implausible, but they probably won’t push the SEC, Big Ten, or Big 12/Pac-10 (depending on the year) out of the top-3 of the BCS leagues.

Keep the above figures in mind as you peruse the pre-season picks and analysis on TV and around the web. If someone talks about the ACC as being the same caliber as the SEC or Big Ten, it should set off a warning flag. The results on the field show the ACC as being a clearly inferior league compared to other top conferences, and don’t accept any other conclusion. These numbers don’t lie.

EDIT: SportsLine’s Dennis Dodd has joined in, but he offers a new stat that should really hit home with the conference. The ACC Championship Game in Jacksonville did not sell out, and the Gator Bowl Association (the committee who put on the game) lost $300,000 on the game. That’s unfathomable, especially considering that Georgia Tech was in the game, and Jacksonville is right next to Georgia.

The SEC Championship Game definitely would never have empty seats, even if it was Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. The Big 12 Championship Game would probably never have empty seats, even if it was Iowa State and Baylor. Yes, Alltel Stadium (ACC title game site) is larger than the Georgia Dome (SEC) and Arrowhead Stadium (Big 12), but not by that much. The whole point of expansion was to make money, and have a championship game to make even more money. Well done, boys.


Off-Topic: Petrino to Atlanta Falcons

January 8, 2007

The man who built Louisville football with one foot out the door has finally left, accepting a job with the Atlanta Falcons. Bobby Petrino has interviewed for various jobs for years, most famously the Auburn job when Auburn’s president and boosters tried to replace Tommy Tuberville.

Petrino will get $24 million over 5 years, or a little more than Nick Saban will get each year from Alabama. It is roughly on par with Steve Spurrier’s contract with the Redskins, and interestingly enough, he also leaves after winning the Orange Bowl, which was also Spurrier’s last game before going to Washington.

Petrino says he believes it’s the best job in the NFL, which had better be right for someone who a year ago signed a 10-year contract extension and announced he was there for the long haul. The Cardinals players are understandably in shock. If there was any doubt that Brian Brohm and Michael Bush were going to the NFL, I think it’s pretty much gone now.

According to ESPN’s writeup, the leading candidate to replace him at Louisville is Tulsa’s coach Steve Kragthorpe, which makes sense since he took Tulsa from being a terrible team to one of the better mid-majors. *I also expect Jimbo Fisher’s name will be linked to the job since he is no longer a candidate for the offensive coordinator job at both FSU and Alabama. He apparently wanted more time than those programs wanted to give him (because of recruiting) because he might replace Chan Gailey at Georgia Tech should the Miami Dolphins hire Gailey away. Personally, I think the Louisville job is a better job at this point, so if the Louisville leadership is not set on having someone with head coaching experience, Fisher might have a shot. (Note: see update below)

So will Petrino be any good? His only NFL experience is two years as quarterbacks coach and one year as offensive coordinator during three of the four worst years in Jacksonville Jaguars history. Granted, that was the fault of management, who was gutting the roster to get under the salary cap. However, he doesn’t have a long history or anything else to suggest that he’ll be good as an NFL coach. At the same time, the Falcons need a great quarterbacks coach as much as anything else, and Petrino fits that bill. He is creative enough to figure out a way to turn Mike Vick into some kind of Vince Young clone, or something even better.

To be honest, Petrino strikes me as a classic college coach and not NFL material. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. He’ll flame out in 3 or 4 years probably, then return to college, perhaps to replace Saban at Alabama when he takes off for whatever else his heart desires. It’s worth a shot for the Falcons since there aren’t a whole lot of appealing coaches with NFL head-coaching experience available right now, but it’s still an awfully big risk.

*UPDATE: Fisher is going to FSU after all, and Louiville appears near to having Kragthorpe. Well, that didn’t take long. It appears that ol’ Jimbo would rather take his chances with succeeding Bobby Bowden than waiting on the unlikely (I think) premise that the Dolphins would hire Chan Gailey.