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.

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Even a broken clock is right sometimes: Michigan State to #2 in the AP Poll

I have to agree, because the man said what I’ve been saying for a week now: Michigan State looks like the best team in the country at this moment. Both teams in the Oregon-MSU game looked better than anything the SEC had to offer through the first two weeks of the season.

Week three saw the Spartans struggle against Air Force’s triple-option offense, but, one has reason to expect, that data point will have little meaning going forward. Meanwhile, Georgia dominated South Carolina in what easily was the Dawgs’ best game of the year, and Ole Miss made it two straight over Alabama.

The Black Bears’Rebels’ win certainly was exciting, and it’s led some to argue that they deserve the top AP spot. Their sixty-four points per game and undefeated record that includes a win in Tuscaloosa merit a top-tier ranking, but home wins over UT-Martin and Fresno State aren’t terribly revealing.

Terribly revealing? Missouri’s ugly win over UCONN is a strong indication that the two-time SEC East champions are unlikely to defend their consecutive division titles in Atlanta this December. Ohio State had a similarly weak victory over Northern Illinois, but those Huskies are better than the ones from New England, and the Buckeyes’ recent track record suggests they’ll be fine going forward.

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College football wrapup: 2014-15

The 2014 college football season is in the books, and Ohio State is the first school to win a national championship determined by a postseason playoff system.

Beyond the usual discussion of champions and coaching legacies (quickly: Urban Meyer– three national championships at two different schools, evil; Nick Saban– four national championships at two different schools, merely soulless), one of the central season-in-review topics of conversation, at least in these parts, is whether the SEC is over. Surprisingly but also not surprisingly, Paul Finebaum, voice of the SEC, answers the question implied in the previous sentence in the affirmative. (UPDATE: PFT Commenter emphatically concurs.) Although he’s been developing his position over the course of his daily radio show since roughly the first of the year, he summed up the general point in his appearance on Keith Olbermann’s show just before the national championship game:

In short: “It was a pretty bad year for the SEC.”

Although I contemplated the notion of Peak SEC at least as early as December 2012 and later pegged the possible date somewhat more recently, I’m not sure I agree that the SEC is over.

The SEC’s bowl record was 7-5. (They were 7-3 last year.) The Pacific Twelve was 6-2 (exclusive of Oregon’s national championship loss), the Big Ten was 5-5 (exclusive of Ohio State’s national championship win), the Big XII was 2-5, and the ACC was 4-7. In other words, among the power five conferences, the SEC had the most teams playing in bowl games and notched the second-best winning percentage.

What seems to concern Finebaum, though, is a sudden lack of championships. That people think the SEC is done for because one of its members hasn’t played for a national championship in a whole year and hasn’t won one in a whole two years is a testament to the never-before-seen degree of dominance the conference produced during the BCS era. Prior to Ohio State’s inaugural CFP championship on Monday, the Big Ten had 1.5 national championships since 1970. The SEC had nine in the BCS era (i.e., since 1998) alone. The ACC had two BCS championships, the ACC had two, the (now-defunct for football purposes) Big East had one, and the then-Pac Ten had one, since vacated.

After the hunt for Mississippi October turned up empty and OSU knocked Alabama out in the semis, the SEC may need to do a little more to earn its seeds next year, but I’m not sure we can say the conference is measurably weaker simply because it failed to produce a national champion this year. If anything, the above suggests the conference is as deep as ever.

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Transitioning toward the offseason and the 2015 season, I’ll use this space to remind everyone that Michigan State’s only losses in 2014 were to Ohio State and Oregon. The Spartans face both teams again in 2015, albeit without the aid of their departed defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi. Continue reading

Ohio State claims the first College Football Playoff championship

Following a hot-knife-through-butter opening touchdown drive for the Oregon Ducks in last night’s national championship game, the Ohio State Buckeyes took over the game and never relinquished control. OSU running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and it felt like more than that in the second half, when Ohio State called the same counter run play seemingly on every down and repeatedly executed it successfully. Elliott was so hungry for more yards that he tried to eat confetti after the game.

After that initial Oregon drive, the Buckeye defense, lead by coordinator and former OSU head coach Luke Fickell, found the answer, though, and Oregon’s bucket of tricks soon ran dry. Even in the second half, when Oregon’s defense produced a couple of turnovers, Marcus Mariota and the offense couldn’t make any progress.

Oregon accumulated its twenty points with two touchdowns, that opening-drive score and a one-play, seventy-yard TD pass early in the third quarter, and two field goals. Those two field goals, along with a white-flag punt with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, felt uncharacteristic of a school that, in recent years, lead the charge of pedal-to-the-metal offense.

In the end, Ohio State ended up knocking off Oregon by nearly as wide a margin– 42-20– as the one by which Oregon defeated Florida State in the semifinal round.   Continue reading

College Football Playoff Championship Preview

Oregon meets Ohio State tonight in the inaugural College Football Playoff finale, and I’m most excited about the ESPN Megacast, which, in addition to the above, includes an ESPN Radio play-by-play broadcast as well. ESPN gets knocked around plenty for doing things like bowing to the will of “partners” like the NFL at the expense of its own journalistic integrity or hosting a platform for grey-matter destroyers like Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, and Colin Cowherd, but there are times when they leverage their resources to make significant improvements to the fan experience. ESPN introduced the Megacast concept for the final BCS championship game one year ago, and it was such a success that it’s back again this year, bigger and better than ever. In the interim period, other networks have experimented with the concept, loosely defined, in other sports, and I believe this is the way we will enjoy all major sporting events in the near future.

(If at this point you are wondering what ESPN Goal Line is, it appears to be a Briagdoon-like offering that will materialize on your TV sometime today, maybe. Anyway, you can find me tuning into ESPN Classic’s “sounds of the game.”)

Game Comments

As Sports Illustrated graphically illustrated in this week’s issue, Ohio State and Oregon actually were quite close to each other this year in statistical terms. Initially, there are two reasons to question that apparent parity, however: 1) Oregon plays in the stronger Pacific Twelve conference, while OSU spent much of the season feasting on relatively weaker conference opponents, and 2) Ohio State earned much of its production with quarterbacks not named and thought to be superior to Cardale Jones, the man who will be under center for the Buckeyes tonight. It is right to regard Oregon as the better team in this matchup.

There are a number of factors that cut against Oregon’s edge, however:   Continue reading

The BCS is dead they say: Long live the BCS

cfp

When the BCS died a year ago, I wrote an introduction to the College Football Playoff that, in essence, contended that we were going to miss the BCS:

With the College Football Playoff ©, we will have one thing we asked for and one thing we did not. A semifinal playoff round will precede, and determine the participants in, the national championship game. That is good, and it was a structural shortcoming of the BCS. For some reason, though, the College Football Playoff © scrapped the BCS’s rankings system in favor of a Byzantine (Soviet? Orwellian?) black box: the PolitburoSelection Committee.

Participating in the BCS is like paying your income taxes: there’s a lot of math and fine print involved, you probably can’t quite find all of the information you need to calculate the precisely correct result, and there’s that guy down the block who hollers that the thing’s unconstitutional, but you generally have a pretty good idea of your expected outcome.

On the other hand, the new playoff’s Selection Committee recalls the Supreme Court: members deliberate behind closed doors, apply any criteria of their choosing in reaching decisions, and announce those decisions under their own terms.

On Sunday, the Selection Committee spoke for the last time in its inaugural season to announce the four playoff participants: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State. Two days later, everyone outside of Texas generally seems to agree that this is the right result.

The only reason the results were or remain controversial has to do with what the Selection Committee did prior to Sunday. Their flipping and flopping of TCU, with seemingly connected treatments of Baylor and Minnesota, was the genesis of the confusion, surprise, and, in Fort Worth and Waco, disappointment, that arrived with the final playoff announcement. On one hand, those confused, surprised, and disappointed feelings were unwarranted: the Committee reached the correct result. On the other hand, however, they were unnecessary and likely would not have arisen absent the lack of transparency that now characterizes the college football ranking process.

If the BCS could speak from the grave, what would it say about the CFP Selection Committee’s final result? The answer, Continue reading

College Football Week 2: Two Questions

msvu

College football’s second week didn’t go so well for some of the teams on which we keep a closer eye here at ALDLAND. No controversy or arguments, really. Just poor performances and bad outcomes. Two days later, I’m left with two main questions:

1. Can Michigan State fix its leaky secondary?

Saturday night’s Michigan State-Oregon game lived up to the hype, through the end of the first half, anyway. During the intermission, the Ducks figured out that the one, very real weakness of the Spartan defense was its secondary. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was having no luck creating much of anything on his own, but if he could get the ball out of his hands, his receivers often were very open and had an easy time tacking on extra yards. Everything else seemed pretty good for Michigan State, and I’m not worried about how they’ll handle their conference schedule. At least against Oregon, though, the secondary looked like a real and easily exploitable problem. My question is whether this is a quick fix or a season-long problem.

2. How soon is too soon to fire Derek Mason?

I have an extremely selective (read: poor) memory, but I don’t think Vanderbilt has had two games as bad as the two they’ve played this season in three or four years. A 37-7 loss to Temple and a 41-3 loss to Ole Miss pretty much says it all. USA Today called the latter “just total destruction.” Yes, the team lost its starting quarterback and a pretty good receiver named Jordan Matthews, but these guys look like they caught World Cup fever in the offseason and thought they were out for the soccer team. I don’t think David Williams should take the kneejerk reaction of firing head coach Derek Mason in Mason’s first year on the job, but Commodawg raised the question while we were watching the game, and the regression VU fans are seeing really is shocking. I think it’s okay to ask: If Vanderbilt continues to follow its current trajectory, would you consider firing Coach Mason in the 2014 calendar year?

Quack Preview: Michigan State vs. Oregon

In easily the biggest matchup of the young college football season, Michigan State visits Oregon tonight. (6:30, FOX.) Both teams are very much in contention for a berth in the brand new College Football Playoff, and the outcome of this game figures to go a long way toward determining whether the Spartans or Ducks will find themselves in college football’s new final four.

Despite their dynamic style, Oregon essentially is a known quantity, at least in broad terms. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to handle, and their junior quarterback, Marcus Mariota, is a strong Heisman contender.

Due to some key graduations and departures (e.g., Darqueze Dennard), coupled with an added year of experience for the younger players, Michigan State figures to remain about as strong as last season, while trading a little defense for a little offense.

The question remains: can Michigan State’s defense stop Oregon’s offense? In what I thought was a neat video that included actually understandable game scheme film clips, ESPN’s Trevor Matich explains why the Spartan D might have a chance:

He doesn’t pick MSU to win, of course, and Vegas has the visitors as twelve-point underdogs. Michigan State is better than the Stanford team that ended Oregon’s undefeated run last year, though, and with Jacksonville State as their week-one opponent, Mark Dantonio, Pat Narduzzi, and everyone else in East Lansing has had all spring and summer to prepare for this one. You, on the other hand, have just a few hours to prepare for what should be a fun game.

In the meantime, join Michael Weinreb, now apparently of SB Nation, for a very nice look back at the last time these two teams played each other.

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Football scores

Football has kind of weird scores. Even though it is common to most readers of this blog, a sport where scoring 3 or 7 is common while 2 is rare is kind of weird in the scheme of sports (most other sports are strictly one point at a time other than basketball where 1, 2, 3 are each fairly common).

I was always interested as a kid in figuring out what possible scores can happen in a football game. Certainly multiples of seven are common: 7, 14, 21, 28, etc. along with one or two field goals thrown in for good measure. I wanted to know exactly which scores are possible and which are absolutely forbidden.

Each team’s score is independent of the other: how many points I can score doesn’t depend on how many the other team scores, so we need only look at a single team’s possible scores. For numbers less than seven, zero is clearly possible. Next, a safety gives two and a field goal three. Four, five, and six are made up of combinations of safeties and field goals. Then anything seven or greater can be scored by following simples rules (along with many other possible combinations): keep subtracting seven point touchdowns as long as possible. If the remaining score is zero, you are done. If it is one, switch one of the extra points to a two point conversion. Otherwise, if it is two through six, add safeties and field goals as necessary. For example, if a team had its heart set on scoring 43 points in a game, we would see that six touchdowns takes us to 42, one point short, so five regular touchdowns plus one with a two point conversion gets us there. (For the adventurous reader, this sort of math is known as modular arithmetic.)

This leaves us with any score accessible except for one. This was always a bit disappointing because that is infinitely many possible inaccessible scores. But so it goes.

Except, not. Actually this is not true at all. Continue reading

2013 college football bowl schedule

Before getting to the 2013-14 college football bowl schedule and associated predictions and operations, a note on sponsored discourse. In this post-Musburger-for-all-the-Tostitos world, it is an unremarkable fact that the bowl games are not merely sponsored football contests but business entities in and of themselves, the sponsorship-style nomenclature– e.g., “the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl”– a mere reflection of the game’s less overtly monied past. Even the ostensible bastion of postseason intercollegiate purity now is known as “the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.”

When a bowl game is a business, and not merely a happening, there is an associated shift in the commercial advertising language referential to that business. The NFL’s decision to prohibit the use of “Super Bowl” by non-league advertisers, who now must offer you late-January deals on new televisions for watching “the big game,” provides a rough analogy.

I understand and accept the logic behind a business’ desire to control its portrayal in other business’ advertisements and insist on inclusion of a game’s full, sponsored title in that portrayal. What I do not understand is why the news media plays along. This week, I heard a local sports talk show talk about talking about Georgia’s appearance in “the Taxslayer dot com Gator Bowl,” and that’s far from the only example. I understand that some of the sponsors have integrated their names into the bowl games’ names in such a way that it’s difficult– or, where the sponsor’s name and the bowl’s name are one and the same, impossible– to say the bowl’s name without saying the sponsor’s name as well (e.g., the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and the Capital One Bowl, respectively). “Taxslayer dot com” is a mouthful, though, and everybody already knows the Gator Bowl. “The Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio” is ridiculous to say, and things like “the Allstate Sugar Bowl,” “FedEx Orange Bowl,” and “Tostitos Fiesta Bowl” simply are superfluous. Why the sports news media feels obligated to append these sponsor names when discussing the bowls is beyond me, and you won’t find us doing it here, unless it’s something humorous like the Beef O’Brady Bowl or the RealOakFurniture.com Bowl.

Onto the bowl schedule, which begins this Saturday.   Continue reading