A Word on SEC Championship Game Rematches

The conventional “wisdom,” if you can call it that, from the ESPN pundits is that Auburn so thoroughly dominated Georgia the first time around, that there isn’t much Georgia can do if they play again. If you watched the game, and I did, that is certainly the way it looked. Auburn’s defensive line dominated, their offensive line won the battle, Auburn moved the ball, Georgia didn’t, and they led the game 40-10 before a meaningless late touchdown. So… case closed right?

Well, that’s an interesting theory, or, uh… hypothesis, if you will. How does it hold up to further analysis, or, uh… data. Yes, data. Let’s see. Like many things in college football, the data is limited. Small sample size yada yada yada. The sample size is 7. But here they are. All of the SEC Championship game rematches in history (plus LSU-Bama in 2011, rematching in the national title game):

Year Teams Regular Season Postseason Difference
1999 Florida/Alabama Alabama by 1 Alabama by 27 26
2000 Florida/Auburn Florida by 31 Florida by 22 9
2001 LSU/Tenn Tenn by 8 LSU by 11 19
2003 LSU/UGA LSU by 7 LSU by 21 14
2004 Auburn/Tenn Auburn by 24 Auburn by 10 14
2010 Auburn/S.Car. Auburn by 8 Auburn by 39 31
2011 LSU/Alabama LSU by 3 Bama by 21 24

First things first, only 2 times in 7 rematches has the result changed, in that the loser of the regular season matchup won the postseason game. Those occurred in 2001 and 2011. However, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that 6 times out of 7, the game changed significantly. Only in 2000 was the result basically the same – that being a comfortable win for Florida both times. The other 6 games all went from a close game to a blowout, or vice versa. The average difference in score is over 19 points. Maybe the first game is not a very strong predictor of the second game?

Well, hold on you say. This is only 7 games. And you’d be right, it is a small sample size, but you work with the data you’ve got. Here, I can also add this list of bowl games that have been regular season rematches. Going back to the same starting point (1992, beginning of the SEC title game), there have been 14 such games, and only 4 of these 14 bowl games were won by the team that won the regular season game (excluding the 1995 Sugar Bowl, the “Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter,” because the two teams tied the regular season game).

So, still a small sample size. But the data certainly suggest the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. Not at all. Stated differently, the hypothesis that the first game played between two teams will be a reasonable predictor of a hypothetical rematch has very little support. Thus, when two teams play twice in the same season, the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. That is the “what.”

The “why” is just speculation. We don’t have any data that goes to the cause. However, I can guess as to some reasons. First of all, I’d simply say that the logic is wrong in the first place. Most fans seem to think that a football game is good evidence of something. It shows you who the better team is. I’d argue that’s wrong. Maybe a team’s 12 or 13 game record is good evidence (maybe it’s only so-so evidence). But I’d argue that one game isn’t good evidence of anything. Too many variables, too much luck. In other words, the first game might be a poor predictor of the second game because the first game has a significant luck factor, and so does the second game.

Other possible explanations for this phenomenon are psychological. The players and coaches from the winning team feel like all they have to do is not make any mistakes, and they’ll win again the same way they won the first time. They may have a hard time getting up for the game. The coaches may feel pressure not to change their scheme. After all, it worked the first time. Meanwhile, the second team is adjusting. Its players are angry, and out to prove the first game was a fluke. The opposite can also happen. Consider 2010 – Auburn may not have thought it was a great team during the first matchup, early in the year, when they beat South Carolina by 8. But after finishing the year unbeaten, Auburn was in a different mental state, and out to prove they actually were much better than a 3 loss South Carolina team.

Those are my two best guesses, but there are other conceivable explanations. However, the facts are what they are. And the facts suggest that if Auburn and Georgia play in the SEC Championship game, Auburn may not be as big of a sure thing as the media thinks. In fact, Auburn did get a number of apparently lucky breaks the first time around (fumbled punt, the “leaping” personal foul) which resulted in extra possessions. For whatever its worth, the computers mostly think Auburn would be favored by about a field goal and would have perhaps a 55-60% chance to win. That doesn’t sound very much like the first game. Based on the above, that probably means its exactly right.

Perhaps UGA fans should be cheering for Auburn to win this weekend, so they get a rematch, rather than playing Alabama for the first time.

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2016 Oregon is the Oregon Everyone Thought They Were Watching for the Last Decade

There is a myth that exists in college football that some really good teams are great offenses with bad defenses. These teams win games by scores like 62-51 or 45-38, and, so the theory goes, they are just good enough on offense to outscore any opponent.

In reality, all great teams are fairly complete, meaning that they are good in all phases of the game. You can’t really be a great team if you have a bad defense. What apparently fools everybody is the fact that football is a game with no set pacing. A baseball game is nine innings, or twenty-seven outs if you prefer. Golf is eighteen holes. A set in tennis is six games. Games like football and basketball are different. A football game can range, at the extremes, from something like seven possessions (this year, Navy v. Notre Dame) to as many as seventeen or eighteen. The typical range is more like 9-10 for a low-possession game, and perhaps fifteen for a high-possession game. But, as with basketball, certain teams tend to play high-possession games, and certain teams tend to play low-possession games. Teams that play high-possession games generally feature hurry-up offenses, or pass-happy offenses, or defenses that prefer to gamble for stops rather than playing “bend but don’t break”. Teams that play-low possession games will be teams that run the ball a lot, or play conservative defense that seeks to avoid giving up big plays at the expense of allowing lots of first downs. As should be somewhat obvious, teams that play high-possession games tend to score more points, and they allow more points, all else being equal. For some reason, we collectively seem to appreciate this in basketball, and we don’t necessarily consider low scoring teams to be “bad” on offense. We look to efficiency rankings instead.

Football analysis is catching up, but nobody seems to be taking notice. The stats I will be quoting are from Football Outsiders (very good site if you’ve never seen it).  This site ranks offenses and defenses as units, based on some advanced per-possession stats that attempt to adjust for quality of opponent. This is obviously an imperfect process, but in my opinion it provides much better information than simply saying that, because a team averages 35.6 points per game, they are “good” on offense.

Oregon has long had a reputation as a high-flying offense and a poor defense. I think it is time to challenge that assumption. Offensively, they’ve been good, no question. Since 2007, their offensive ranks have been 7th, 13th, 11th, 11th, 5th, 2nd, 6th, 1st, 13th, and 18th. This year, their 18th rank is their worst on offense in a decade. That’s pretty good. But what about defense? Since 2007, they have been 19th, 42nd, 22nd, 5th, 9th, 4th, 29th, 28th, 84th, and 126th. Raise your hand if you are surprised, particularly about the stretch for 2010 to 2012 (5th, 9th, and 4th). The 2010 national title game was billed as two great offenses against two bad defenses (Auburn and Oregon), yet somehow, those two defenses held the great offenses to some of their lowest point totals all season (22 to 19). Turns out, when analyzed properly, both were great defenses as well (that just so happened to be playing with extreme, hurry up offenses, so they played many high scoring games).

I still consider the absence of a playoff in 2012 to be a travesty. 2012 Oregon vs. 2012 Alabama would have been a great game, and we needed to see it. If only somebody could have beaten Notre Dame during the regular season…  Oh well.

In any event, Oregon’s national-title-contender status from 2010 to 2014 was based upon great offense AND great defense. Last year they still managed to be 9-4, a pretty good year, with the 84th defense. But this year, with a truly terrible defense, they are 4-8, despite still having a great offense.

And that is normal. Many teams follow that formula. For example, 2013 Indiana (8th offense, 105th defense, 5-7 record), 2012 Baylor (5th offense, 94th defense 8-5 record), 2010 Michigan (8th offense, 107th defense, 7-6), 2009 Stanford (4th offense, 104th defense, 8-5 record). Another prominent team that had this reputation was West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez. As a 2007 national title contender that lost in an upset to Pitt to drop out of the title game, then routed Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, they were 3rd on offense and 9th on defense. Not quite what most people thought.

The bottom line is that you won’t be a great team without being at least good on defense. There may be an exception or two (I haven’t researched every team from all time), but the general rule is pretty clear: if you are an elite offense and a below-average defense, you will be .500 or maybe a little better. 8-5 or 9-4 is about the best you can possibly do, and most do worse. Anybody winning 11 or 12 games has a good defense. Don’t be confused if a team like that sometimes gives up a lot of points. Maybe they are playing against a great offense, and/or defending more possessions than most other teams. If they are 12-2, its virtually guaranteed they’ve got a strong defense. Don’t believe the myth.

Analyzing college football coaches’ favorite musical artists

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ESPN conducted a survey of all 128 Division I college football coaches, asking them to name their favorite musical artist. The full list of responses is here. My cursory analysis is here:   Continue reading

Book Review: Paul Finebaum’s Conference has Beaten Your Conference (Probably)

IMG-20140814-00138For someone who spends twenty hours a week on national airwaves as the host of an eponymous radio show, now simulcast on cable television, and makes regular television appearances on a major network, Paul Finebaum sure does manage to keep himself hidden.

I am not a longtime listener of Finebaum’s show by any means. I first remember hearing about him when I moved back to SEC country during the 2012 football season and he was still broadcasting on Birmingham’s WJOX. Due largely to my own preconceived misconceptions, I was surprised when I first heard the show following its move to ESPN Radio in 2013 to find that it was an extremely caller-driven show, to the point where Finebaum rarely asserted his own voice for purposes other than briefly sparring with or otherwise egging on his admittedly bombastic callers. At that time, the majority of those callers remained Alabama-based, and the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry served as nearly every item on the host’s go-to menu.

While a lot of this struck me as fairly standard cheap talk radio tactics, I remained intrigued by this person, who had risen to such prominence and reported influence, despite, I thought, hardly taking active steps to exert much in the way of influence. I therefore read the then-recent and still-surprising long feature on Finebaum in The New Yorker with great interest and anticipation. I found the piece to be more an introduction for Manhattanites to the other SEC and its attendant culture than a deep dive on Finebaum himself. Finebaum as access point, rather than Finebaum as subject. (A long Deadspin feature from the same year had a similar effect.) It’s a worthwhile read if you like college football. Still, I did not feel like I knew or understood this man, though, or why he was so widely regarded.

Fast forward (the lazy blogger wrote) to August 14, 2014. The SEC Network, an ESPN entity, launches (on Tim Tebow’s birthday, naturally), and Finebaum’s book, My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football, arrived in my mailbox.

Continue reading

2014 BCS National Championship Preview

The final BCS National Championship Game is tonight at 8:30 pm on ESPN between Auburn and Florida State. The Seminoles, behind Heisman winner Jameis Winston and a robust defense, are heavily favored, but that’s no reason to think the Eagles/Tigers/Plainsmen can’t win. When I previewed all the bowl games last month, I wrote of this one:

Florida State and Auburn round things out in the final BCS National Championship Game before the implementation of the College Football Playoff next season. If this game was being played this weekend, I’d have an easier time picking Auburn to win. Although the Eagles/Tigers/Plainsmen have beaten Alabama, Missouri, Texas A&M, and everyone else on their schedule with the exception of LSU on the road, I think all of the time off will allow Florida State to better prepare for Auburn’s packaged offensive scheme. I can’t help being reminded of Auburn’s last national championship, in a game in which I also thought they were severely overmatched. Auburn’s giving up forty-two points to Missouri in the SEC championship game worries me, but they’re still my tentative pick to win it all on January 6.

I don’t know that anything has happened since then to make me feel more confident that Auburn can win, so I’m going to leave my prediction as it is. Feel free to add yours in the comments below.

(Sidebar: Picking bowl games is a little bit difficult. This year, my picks were pretty scattered, none worse than picking Rice to beat Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl, which ended up being one of the few bad games this postseason. Still, I would like to note that ESPN the Magazine went 0-fer in its BCS bowl predictions. They had Alabama by 14 in the Sugar (Oklahoma by 14), Baylor by 20 in the Fiesta (UCF by 10), Ohio State by 6 in the Orange (Clemson by 5), and Stanford by 15 in the Rose Bowl (Michigan State by 4).)

For your pregame reading, I offer the following selections:

  • The Making of a Modern-Day Guru: How Gus Malzahn went from high school defensive coordinator to college offensive mastermind, and took Auburn to the brink of championship glory in the process Grantland
  • Florida State: Unbeaten and Untested. In contrast to Tigers, Seminoles Took the Path of Least Resistance Wall Street Journal
  • Equal Justice Under College Football Playoff: College football will take a big step forward when it adds a two-round, four-team playoff, but it will take a step backward when it replaces the BCS ranking system with the College Football Playoff Selection Committee ALDLAND

Enjoy the game tonight.

A note on rants

The substantial development of online social networks as a solidifying infrastructure for the movement of information online has reinforced on the web the tenets of the attention economy and turned the internet, as concerns the sharing of content, into the interactive, digital version of a supermarket checkout aisle magazine display or afternoons on cable news networks. Whether you’re hawking cat videos or the latest from Miley Cyrus, the internet is in a serious tabloid phase, and the clickbait semantics of TMZ, Gawker, and Buzzfeed pervades. In the unending drive to control attention, the currency of our present time, everything must be labeled “awesome,” “EPIC,” “incredible,” “the best X you’ll see today,” “spectacular,” “fabulous,” and so forth, even if it’s barely out of the ordinary. It’s increasingly difficult to describe anything in measured terms, and we’re losing perspective on the degree to which anything truly is extraordinary.

The latest example of this phenomenon comes in the treatment of comments in a postgame press conference by Southern Illinois University head men’s basketball coach Barry Hinson, who expressed open frustration with his young team after a loss. It wasn’t the handful of mumbled sports cliches we’ve come to expect in such settings, but neither was it, upon my eventual listen, an extreme outburst deserving of the extreme attention it received. “Epic Rant!”, numerous outlets exclaimed. “Amazing tirade.” “Must-see video.” “Epic postgame rant for the ages,” they said.

Please. I’ve heard Denny Green. I’ve heard Jim Mora. I’ve heard Mike Gundy. I’ve heard Mary Carillo. Barry Hinson doesn’t hold a candle to those artists.

If you wanted a true rant this week, you just needed to wait until Wednesday afternoon. Colin Cowherd came on the Paul Finebaum Show and said that he thought that Gus Malzahn has Auburn situated to give Nick Saban and Alabama stiff competition in the coming years, and Cowherd predicted that the Tigers would beat Alabama again next year on their way to back-to-back national titles. Some of Finebaum’s Alabama listeners did not appreciate Cowherd’s opinions, and they called in to say so. As I heard the call of one such fan, Phyllis, unfold while listening to the Cowherd segment this morning, I had the slow-dawning realization that I was experiencing true radio magic. Listen for yourself:

(The full segment is available here.)

College Football Fan Guide: Championship Week Edition

Last week was one of the best football weeks in recent memory, and although our Tuesday Afternoon Inside Linebacker weekly feature has fallen by the wayside due to worldly obligations, this week and the week ahead deserve note.

The Lions started things off on Thanksgiving with a wonderful win over Green Bay. It was Detroit’s first win on Turkey Day in nine years, and it was the first time Matt Stafford beat the Pack. The Lions also avenged the career game Matt Flynn had the only previous time he quarterbacked Green Bay against Detroit.

Brendan and I were in the Big House for Michigan’s surprise one-point loss to Ohio State, and I made it out of Ann Arbor in time to see Georgia come back to defeat Georgia Tech in overtime, note Vandy’s comeback win over Wake Forest, and watch maybe the greatest one second of college football in Auburn’s regulation toppling of Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

Records of note:

  • Auburn: 11-1 (35-21 loss at LSU)
  • Michigan State: 11-1 (17-13 loss at Notre Dame)
  • Ohio State: 12-0
  • Vanderbilt: 8-4 (poised for second consecutive nine-win season)
  • Missouri: 11-1 (27-24 2OT loss against South Carolina)

Bowl outlook:

  • Rose Bowl: Barring a very bad loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game Saturday night, Michigan State seems set to ring in the new year in Pasadena. Here are the details on that situation.
  • Bowl projections keep waffling Vandy between the Music City and Liberty Bowls. Despite having a national championship in women’s bowling, they can’t seem to roll outside the Volunteer State. The former Independence Bowl in Shreveport might be a good alternative.

The BCS national championship: Right now, Florida State is set to play Ohio State, but that could change after this weekend. Each team needs to beat its conference championship opponent, Duke and Michigan State (more on basketball later!) respectively, of course. Auburn’s also in the mix here. If the Eagles/Tigers/Plainsmen beat Missouri in the SEC championship game, one-loss/SEC champ Auburn could leap an undefeated Ohio State. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask Florida head coach Urban Meyer:

There are a lot of people making a lot of decisions out there, but this is a big one. We’re going to tell a group of young men, who just went 12-1 in a most difficult schedule against six ranked opponents, that they don’t have a chance to play for a national championship? I’m going to need help with that one.

That was back in 2006, though, and in 2013, Meyer finds himself singing a decidedly different tune as the head coach of Ohio State. 2006 Urban Meyer got his way, something 2013 Urban Meyer ought to keep in mind this week.

(HT: @DrunkAubie)

Auburn’s Tainted Title: Victims, Violations and Vendettas for Glory (via Roopstigo)

Mike McNeil can detail how the culture of big-time football works in a fast-growing community of 53,000 under the thumb of its major industry: Auburn University athletics. In an economic impact survey by the school in 2007, the report stated: “a conservative estimate of Auburn football’s direct visitor expenditures is more than $79.6 million during seven home events. That spending generates some $173 million in economic impact.” The university tentacles reach everywhere as the leading employer in Lee County. Chris Hughes, the judge who is scheduled to sit on the bench at Mike’s trial next week, is an Auburn University alumnus. According to his website, he once worked at the university coliseum and his sister is an Auburn University professor.  The school is a massive construction zone these days thanks to public funding and the largesse of wealthy alumni, many of whom sit in luxury boxes at Jordan-Hare Stadium, seating capacity 87,451.

As part of the BCS-dominant SEC, Auburn athletics feeds off the more than $3 billion earned by the conference through network and cable TV deals and will be part of an incoming stream of millions more with the SEC TV Network set to launch in 2014. “They recruit you by telling you what you want to hear: You’re family; you’re like a son to me,” says Mike. “But the reality is your class schedule is planned around football, not the other way around. It’s a business and there are players on the payroll.”

McNeil is not alone in understanding how Auburn football operates as an underground society beneath the NCAA’s radar. “Auburn does whatever Auburn wants,” says Thorpe. In interviews with more than a dozen players from the BCS title team, a portrait emerges of a championship tainted by allegations suggesting a program going off the rails. … Read More

(via Roopstigo)

Video: Inside Vanderbilt’s 17-13 win over Auburn

With the most notable exception being our podcasts, this site largely has been about reading and writing. As it has developed, I see its two main functions as a) distilling the ever-increasing amount of sports writing by highlighting just a few of the best pieces and b) providing an independent platform for the relating of personal sports opinions, experiences, and other reactions. Because our A/V crew unionized and promptly went on strike earlier this year, we almost exclusively perform the second function, the real creative one, through the written word. I think that usually is a good thing, and doing that type of writing is part of the fun of this site.

There are plenty of times, though, when video can be a better form of communication than text alone. (See, for example our Silent Film Series, currently on an extended intermission.) My sense is that video is still trying to find its place in an increasingly social and mobile digital world. My sense also is that Vanderbilt’s athletic department is doing as good a job as any program of using social media in general and video in particular to provide to multiple important audiences– alumni, current students, and prospective students– a real inside look into their program. One of the most successful examples came when a video of Coach James Franklin surprising a senior walk-on football player with a scholarship went moderately viral this summer.

The latest example is perhaps less momentous and less likely to spread far beyond the Vanderbilt community, but the extended highlight reel of the team’s win over Auburn this past Saturday offers a pretty compelling and intimate look at the gameday experience through the team’s eyes:

Midseason Monday

We’re into the meat of the 2012 football season with heavy games for most teams from here on out. It’s also the time when teams’ reputations for the year become solidified. One such team is Auburn, which fell to 1-6 on the season, 0-5 in conference with a 17-13 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville. Four years ago, I watched these teams play under the lights in the same stadium. In 2008, Auburn was 5-0 and highly ranked, but the game outcome was the same. This year’s win over the TIgers/Plainsmen/Eagles won’t do as much for the Commodores’ strength of schedule, but it does push them to 2-3 in the conference, and it’s an important win to kick off the second half of a schedule that should be easier than the first.

While Vanderbilt took a necessary step in the positive direction Saturday, Michigan State took another step toward a lost season with a 12-10 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor. More on that game later in the week. Back to the SEC for a moment, where the Eastern division is one of the most power concentrated and confusing divisions in the nation. Florida swamped South Carolina, 44-11, to go to 7-0 (6-0), while Georgia escaped Lexington with a 29-24 win over Kentucky. If Florida’s going to lose a game this year, it will be next week when they host Georgia, because the rest of their schedule is soft cake (Missouri, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jacksonville State, and Florida State). In the SEC West, LSU and Texas A&M renewed their rivalry in a compelling game featuring early Aggie control and a Tiger comeback win.

Elsewhere in the top 25, Alabama and Oregon rolled. Two quick notes on Oregon: 1) I’m worried that Florida’s #2 rating in the first BCS, together with their easy finishing schedule, will mean that we don’t get to see Alabama and Oregon in the national championship game, a matchup that feels very compelling and intriguing; and 2) the ALDLAND staff is still waiting on it’s autographed Oregon cheerleader calendar. Jog back to the SEC West, where Mississippi State is the most unheralded undefeated team in the country. After beating MTSU Saturday, though, they’re unlikely to stay that way, finishing with Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. Of course, nothing is more perennially unheralded than the Starkville Dogs, and that schedule only has something to do with it. Most of the rest of the top 25 won, including Clemson, Oregon State, and Stanford in important conference games. The upstart Texas Tech Red Raiders survived in triple overtime to beat TCU, and the very impressive Kansas State beat West Virginia in Morgantown 55-14 in a game in which I’d only somewhat jokingly predicted WVU would score 100 after being embarrassed the week before. Dana Holgorson’s air raid offense appears to be out of jet fuel.

On Sunday, the Vikings continue to mount an increasingly compelling challenge to those who would dismiss them by going to 5-2 with a win over flash in the pan Arizona. RGIII continues to impress despite another close loss, this week to the Giants. The Saints doubled their win total by beating Tampa Bay, and the Raiders came back to beat the ailing Jaguars, who lost Maurice Jones-Drew and Blaine Gabbert, sending out the bat signal for David Garrard (I hope). The Patriots beat the Jets in overtime, although VSL’s Bobby O’Shea, a noted Jets fan, thinks that something is wrong in New England, and I’m inclined to agree. Whether it was the defensive injuries Baltimore suffered last week or Houston’s push to come back from a loss, the Texans returned to 2012 form with a 43-13 win over the Ravens.

In baseball, the World Series is nearly set. The Tigers are in(!), and the Cardinals and Giants are playing a game seven right now, which the Giants are winning 7-0 in the fourth. In other current news, Ndamukong Suh just separated Jay Cutler’s neck from the rest of his body. Bears 10, Lions 0 in the first half.