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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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

Who’s conflicted about sports? Giancarlo Stanton theme-and-variation edition

I didn’t expect the opportunity to write another post about an ESPN SportsNation poll to arise so soon after the last one, but rumors of a $300 million contract for Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton have ESPN asking its totally equipped to answer this question audience whether they think the potential contract is a good idea.

Here’s how the responses look:

stanstentiaWhile we could discuss angsty West Virginia’s inability to make up its mind on this question, the interesting twist, for our purposes, is that Montana and Vermont have entirely declined to weigh in. Their silence leaves us with a void into which we are left to impute existential meaning (or, in Vermont’s case, ice cream). Are Montanans and Vermonsters so disgusted by the very asking of the question that they refuse to dignify it with any response? Or, in an act of humility, have they recognized their own shortcomings with respect to the ability to analyze the relative merits of a long-term arrangement fraught with numerous physical, financial, and psychological components, a task that escapes mastery by even the leading minds in the field, and decided to refrain from acting beyond the scope of their limited, though completely normal, faculties? Or, to consider yet a third alternative, are they already out skiing and/or loaded up on Heady Topper and thus too busy to be bothered to respond?

Based on my hypothetical polling of my actual friend, a Vermont native who lived in Montana, I suspect these two electorates simply may not have an opinion on the matter. As we now have seen, such a posture so confounds ESPN/SportsNation’s “embrace debate” mentality that their reaction is to wipe you off the map.

UPDATE: Montana and Vermont have broken their silences, unanimously agreeing that this contract is a really bad idea! As always, click the map above to see the latest results.

Tuesday Afternoon Inside Linebacker

tail3ALDLAND’s weekly football review returns after an infamous fall wedding weekend. Bear with us as we attempt to piece together the happenings of the last few days.

College Football

Pregame:

  • After the Game of the Century of the Season of the Week last week in College Station, everybody predicted a scheduling letdown this week. Sports predictions have become (always were?) completely useless and devoid of meaning, but once in a while, the wisdom of the crowd gets it right. Throwing out expired food? No, actually. A soft slate of week-four matchups? For the most part, yes.

The games — That 70s Show:

  • Clemson opened the week of play by getting punchy on Thursday night in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over North Carolina State. So far as I can tell, the Tigers have played only fellow Carolinians to this point in the season. A check of their schedule confirms this, and the trend will continue this weekend. (EDIT: Except for that little game against UGA in week one.) Clemson 26, North Carolina State 14.
  • A number of teams posted gaudy scores and spreads. Since they already had their fun, they’re all getting grouped in this one paragraph. Ohio State 76, FAMU 0. Louisville 72, FIU 0. Miami 77, Savannah State 7. Washington 56, Idaho State 0. Baylor 70, Louisiana-Monroe 7 (that one’s actually a little surprising). Florida State 54, Bethune-Cook 6. Wisconsin 41, Purdue 10. UCLA 59, New Mexico State 13. Texas A&M 42, SMU 13. And others.

On paying college athletes: Schools’ obligations under the status quo

Last week, Clay Travis argued, credibly, that all Wonderlic Test scores should be made public. For whatever reason, these scores are the only NFL combine results not made public. Every year, though, someone leaks a few of the scores to the media, and this year was no exception. According to the testing company, a score of ten indicates literacy, while a twenty indicates average intelligence. The three leaked scores were a twelve (Justin Hunter, Tennessee), an eleven (Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee), and a seven (Tavon Austin, West Virginia). Travis explained his larger takeaway point:

So all three of these wide receivers tested borderline literate, and substantially less intelligent than an average security guard would test.

Yet all three receivers have been eligible to play college football for years.

Isn’t this prima facie evidence of academic fraud? I mean, if you can barely read the Wonderlic test, how in the world have you been eligible at a four year college without significant cheating?

Travis goes on to writhe in the muckety muck of “academic fraud . . . one of the great untold stories of major college athletics” and cast  now-common aspersions on the NCAA.

It’s the NCAA that tends to bear the brunt of the building criticism of the college athletics status quo from the likes of Travis and his former employer, Deadspin, and the NCAA probably deserves most of that criticism. On this issue, though, it’s the schools themselves that deserve a critical assessment, not the NCAA.

The boom-bust cycle that is the volume of the discussion over whether college athletes should be paid is in a boom phase at the moment, but the substance of the conversation has not changed much over the years. Those in favor of paying college athletes point to the large revenue streams college athletics produce for schools and the NCAA and argue that it’s wrong that the athletes are not allowed to share in those profits; those opposed argue that the student-athletes are being compensated in the form of a free college education. The two sides actually seem to agree, at least implicitly, on the fundamental premise that college athletes should be compensated, and their disagreement is with the degree to and manner in which the athletes should be compensated: Proponents want new cash payments, perhaps held in trust, for the students, while opponents believe a free education constitutes sufficient compensation.

Test results indicating that students are flirting with illiteracy after three or four years of college are evidence that schools are not even keeping up their bargain to provide student-athletes with an education.

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.

Narrow Margin Monday

Excepting the above-depicted forty gambler-point swing victory by Middle Tennessee State University, the Volunteer State’s biggest school, over Georgia Tech, there were a lot of close college football games on Saturday. Michigan State lost by one to Ohio State. Although the internet’s had a lot to say about that game in the way of eye-gouging, taunting, and the pregame game tape exchange, there’s not much to say about the game itself beyond the observation that OSU’s Braxton Miller is pretty good. Even though it was high scoring, West Virginia only beat Baylor by a touchdown in Morgantown. Of course, it was really high scoring. Like 70-63. Big Ten basketball territory. Other top-25 games, though not quite as close, probably were closer than the winning team would’ve preferred. Alabama beat Ole Miss 33-14 in a game that was in reach for the underdogs (underbears?) in the fourth quarter. Washington State put up 26 against Oregon, which is 26 more than Arizona could do. Texas and Oklahoma State went to the wire, and UGA-UT was a one-score game as well. Clemson got back to its winning ways with a 45-31 win over woeful Boston College.

The pros sang a different tune on Sunday, though, at least in part, when Denver found its legs against Oakland (38-6), New England posted 52 on Buffalo, and San Francisco bounced back with a 34-0 shutout of the dead-in-the-water-not-walking-on-water J-e-t-s. There were some close games in the NFL too, as the Cardinals won by three in overtime to inexplicably stay undefeated, and the Saints lost by one to stay defeated.

On the topic of defeats, the U.S. team absolutely melted down on the last day of the Ryder Cup, surrendering a supposedly insurmountable lead. We now return to our regular golf coverage, which, absent Jungle Bird, is nonexistent.

What the Orange Bowl tells us about conferences’ automatic BCS bids

We’ve followed the Clemson Tigers this season, from their 8-0 start, through their late-season slippage, their return to their winning ways in the ACC championship, and now their embarrassing defeat last night in the Orange Bowl at the hands of West Virginia. The Tigers’ victories have come almost exclusively on the back of their high-flying offense. Like Grinnell “system” basketball, Clemson doesn’t much care how many points you score because they’re just going to score more. It’s a great approach as long as it lasts, and it definitely is thrilling to watch, but when it unravels, things can get ugly in a hurry. Keep reading…

Hmm.

Not that the Big East is relevant in any discussion of college football, but how is it that after Syracuse man-handled West Virginia, West Virginia is ranked while Syracuse is not?  (They share the same record.)  At least USC has a better record than Arizona State (although I’m sure they’ll have a loss after Oregon as well).  I imagine there would considerable uproar if Wisconsin were ranked higher than Michigan State today.

Then again, maybe I answered it in the beginning: no one cares enough about the Big East to actually bother evaluating them.

Update:  The coaches are even worse than the AP, giving WV about 10 times as much love as the Orange.

2nd UpdateNone of the computers have WV ranked.