Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kurt Coleman hit update

MGoBlog found footage of the Kurt Coleman hit that has drawn yet another suspension from the Big Ten front office. At the time of writing my last post, I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about all of these suspension. However, this is undeniably the right penalty for Coleman's hit--aside from the fact that, as Brian at MGoBlog notes, all helmet-to-helmet hits are reviewed by the Big Ten anyway.

The hit can be seen here. A few points of contention:
  • What was Coleman trying to do with his hit? He clearly wasn't helping bring down McGee who was already headed toward the ground.
  • More to the point, he clearly leads with his head, and if you follow his trajectory, aimed for McGee's head. You tell me (click on the image for a bigger, more telling view):
  • What's most disturbing to me after this hit was the way he responded. Coleman is clearly smiling and laughing as he walks off the field as if it's something he was meaning to do. Then, a teammate puts his arm around Coleman's shoulder for a good laugh and a job well done.
This is a dangerous and violent hit, and one that absolutely deserved a suspension.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Big Ten digs a grave, lies in it

Today, the Big Ten announced that it is going to suspend Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman for one game after his helmet-to-helmet hit on backup Illinois quarterback Eddie McGee. This continues the Big Ten's disturbing trend of suspending players for, well, not particularly serious on-field events.

It began with the suspension of Michgan's Jonas Mouton after a punch he threw toward the end of the Notre Dame game. Mouton's offense didn't draw a flag on the field and didn't incite much on the field (in fact, nothing on the field at all). It's my assumption that this sort of event happens a lot on the field. But it wasn't until Charlie Weis complained about the punch in the post-game conference that it drew any attention. After the suspension, Rich Rodriguez, not happy with it, said he was going to be diligent and make sure the Big Ten was as harsh on similar events in the future. Well, they were. First on Purdue offensive lineman Zach Reckman for his elbow late in Purdue's loss to Northern Illinois.

The real problem with all of these suspensions--and it began with the Mouton punch--is that the offense for getting suspended has been significantly downgraded. If the Big Ten is going to keep suspending players like this, it's going to start significantly affecting the outcome of games, and possibly, the race for the Big Ten Title. By continuing this tyrannical rule and trying to hide that these sorts of incidents happen in a football game is silly. The Big Ten has dug a grave for itself and won't be able to get out until next year rolls around and they ultimately forget this silliness ever happened. And people wonder why the Big Ten is a national joke.

The next one

Before he was a disgraced, semi-bust, Eric Lindros was "The Next One". His scoring prowess and skills were nearly unprecedented. He had size, stick skills, a pounding physical game, and was quick to boot. He was Todd Bertuzzi without the criminal record and a hell of a lot more skills.

And then concussions happened.

Lindros went from being the most promising player in the NHL to an injury-riddled fallen star. It got so bad that his own team disgraced him on the local news by making a spectacle of the removal of his captain's "C" from his jersey. It did not go well.

I bring this up, of course, because of the Tebow injury. I've mentioned before that, because of Tebow's style of play (head down, aggressive, pounding) I was surprised that Tebow had made it as long in his career has he had without being seriously injured. It's kind of shocking that the hit the finally knocked him out would be so, well, pedestrian--quarterbacks get hit hard in the pocket like this often. After the hit he endured against Tennessee's Eric Berry, it seemed like Tebow was indestructible.

But the real tragedy here, is that it's likely that Tim Tebow will return far too early from his injury. The above hit on Eric Lindros--the one that sent him career into a tailspin of constant injuries--kept him out for 18 games (or approximately 3 weeks, best case scenario). As EDSBS pointed out, this is a brain injury and is much different than any other kind of injury. This cannot be rushed.

Worse still are the prospects for Tebow's NFL future. He was, at one time, a quarterback that people thought had no NFL future because of the way he played, but with the emergence of the wildcat and Tebow's progressing throwing skills, many changed their tune about Tebow's pro prospects. Those hopes look to be all but dashed now. With the exponential damage and ease of incurring concussions, this is a big hit for Tebow's future. Best case scenario, Tebow sits out a few weeks and is able to heal properly (unlikely, given both the pressures of college football and Tebow's own attitude) and this becomes a random event that doesn't hinder his professional career, and more importantly, ability to function as a human being.

Then again, Eric Lindros was once The Next One.

Pete Carroll's desperation

When Mark Sanchez announced that he was leaving USC a year early for the NFL, Pete Carroll was none too happy. He was blasted in the media for the way he handled the situation--more or less like one of those spoiled Sweet 16 children that didn't get the Lamborghini they asked for.

The one quote that really sticks out to me is Carroll's claim that Sanchez wasn't ready for the NFL. At the time, I called bullshit. Sanchez proved himself fully capable to make the throws and decisions that were required of an NFL quarterback (or at least as much as a college quarterback is able to demonstrate them in NCAA play), completing almost 66% of his passes, for 8.76 YPA, and 34 TDs to 10 INTs. Sanchez was NFL ready.

Carroll's quotes, then, seem more like selfish propaganda than honest criticism of Sanchez's play. As the New York Jets sit at 3-0, in large part because of the play of Sanchez who has been relatively good, especially for a rookie (59% completion percentage, 4 TDs, and 2 INTs), you begin to question Carroll and how he felt toward his incumbent and incoming quarterbacks. Putting aside the desire not to play a true freshman at quarterback, USC's current quarterback situation is... unsettled. The collective numbers of quarterbacks Aaron Corp and Matt Barkley are not altogether abysmal (60% completion, 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 8.38 YPA), but neither of them look like leaders or capable of making the difficult plays.

This is nothing new. The quarterback competition at USC has been in flux for the entire offseason and continued as such into conference play. But put in juxtaposition with the Sanchez/Carroll national awkward party a few months ago, Carroll's anger and doubt seem just a little more despicable now.

Tebow follow up

As was expected, people have been talking about the Tebow injury. Most compellingly, however, was Every Day Should be Saturday, who takes a remarkably compassionate, logical, and intelligent look at concussions in general and Tebow's influence over those people he's trying to reach in his preaching and otherwise. I highly recommend. Money quote:

If Tebow has suffered a concussion, and is genuinely concerned about setting an example for the people he wants to reach, he should let John Brantley start against LSU. That is not meant to be an emotional plea. If anything, it is as cold and logical a call as one could hope to make. The sort of statement one makes when you use your healed, rational, and firing-on-all-synapses brain looking at the evidence-based prescriptions of medical science. (Exactly the kind of decision he and other football players will not make.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Tebow injury

The college football landscape got a lot more interesting this week with the concussion of the Tebow Child. As you can see in the picture of him being carried off the field, Tebow is not really aware of, well, anything.

I've been talking to people about this Florida dynasty for quite some time now, and the one thing that I always return to is health; Tim Tebow, for his aggressive style of running and go-gett'um attitude has been remarkably healthy over the last two years. It's not necessarily that I want to see Tebow get injured. But I want to see what happens to this team when they lose their leader and the crux of their offense who, in some act of God, has remained healthy while running head first into linebackers for two years.

A diarist on MGoBlog did a fairly extensive analysis on the durability of the different types of quarterbacks (pro style, running back-like, dual threat). It's truly worth a read, but long story short, Tebow's style of play would put him in position to get injured only slightly more than an average quarterback. But it's the way he plays the game--head down, running through linebackers at all costs--that makes me feel otherwise. Either way, Florida is now in the midst of their SEC lineup and will, likely, be without Tebow (or Tebow as the unstoppable force he once was) for the next few games.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The hype machine claims another

I feel bad for Ole Miss. This was a team that had absolutely no chance of living up to the hype that had been built around them. One win over goliath Florida last year, and they were immediately catapulted into SEC and national lore as a BCS contender this season. And on the back of some stellar play last year from quarterback Jevan Snead, he became the chic pick for Heisman. But how many times do you hear a player say something like this after a loss as a Top 5 team?:

"I'm glad it's over with so everyone can just stop talking about it," Rebels offensive lineman Bradley Sowell said.

Those are the words of a player that knows where his team belongs. And where it stands is not among the nation's elite.

Jevan Snead was the real story of this game, and really, this team. He led them past Florida. He led them to a commanding win against Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl last year. Frankly, he deserved some of the hype coming into this season. But he's been, well, not very good this year. Ignoring his massive flop performance last night, in his first two games (against Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana, no less), Snead was completing a mere 56% of his passes, for 7.68 YPA, 5 TDs, and 2 INTs. Those numbers are middling at best (with last night's stats factored in, Snead is completing 49% of his passes for 6.92 YPA; those are Steven Threet numbers). Snead has looked like anything but a Heisman contender.

So where do we go from here? A few days ago, I wrote about national perception and how it relates to the Big 12. Says I:

Meanwhile, Big 12 teams can amass losses, and as long as they are against the oft-overrated Big 12 opponents, suffer nary a consequence in the national rankings.

And this can just as easily apply to the SEC. Case in point: South Carolina, a team that is now being considered one of the elite in the country because of this win and a near-win (but still a loss) against Georgia.

In that post, I talk briefly about Iowa, who is undefeated, beating an SEC and Pac-10 team and playing a sloppy game against Northern Iowa, but still coming away with a win. Iowa, after their season opening block-fest against Northern Iowa, dropped from the polls entirely after being preseason #22. They won. But were dropped. Meanwhile, South Carolina, a team that played undeniably the ugliest game of the entire season (the 7-3 snore that was the season opener against NC State), lost to Georgia, and beat what is obviously an overrated Ole Miss team (unconvincingly, might I add) is now being talked about in the "How good are they?" discussions. In a sport that puts so much emphasis on winning games and moving up in the rankings, it is truly ridiculous that South Carolina is being talked about like this, and will undeniably shoot up the rankings.

So the hype machine strikes again and we're going to have to hear about how great the SEC is for the next three weeks until South Carolina is invariably crushed by Alabama. That is, if they make it past South Carolina State and Kentucky, which frankly, I'm not sure they can.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Upset watch: Arkansas vs. Alabama

Lloyd Carr was a quiet man. He ran, by all accounts, the cleanest, most by-the-books program in the entire nation for basically his entire tenure at Michigan. He recruited good players and good people. There were occasional busts and misses--players that got caught up in the wrong crowd--but for the most part, Carr should be commended for how he avoided negative publicity by being such an upstanding coach.

Ryan Mallett was the heir to the Chad Henne throne. Incumbent backup Jason Forcier (whose younger brother Tate is the current Wolverines signal caller) was clearly a third option once Mallett showed up on campus--the cause of the elder Forcier's untimely transfer a year before Rich Rodriguez rolled into town with a system perfectly suited for Jason. So when rumors started to fly about Mallett's attitude problems and discontent, people started to turn against the soon-to-be-crowned golden boy. And when the most damning story of all hit the rumor mill (that Carr called Mallett into his office and literally threw transfer papers at him), the writing was on the wall and Mallett was a goner, even before the spread offense came to Michigan.

It is for these reasons, as a Michigan alum, that I rather detest Ryan Mallett.

However--and I cringed to type this--he is as advertised. A 6'6" mancannon that hurls the ball with uncompromising accuracy and velocity, he's now three years into his college career and, now that he's given the opportunity to start, proving that he was worthy of his recruiting rankings. It is for these reasons, and my distrust of Alabama's ranking, that I think Arkansas will walk into Bryant-Denny Stadium and come away victorious.

Team comparison:

Offense#9 total offense (512.33 yards/game)
#11 scoring offense (42.33 points/game)
#2 total offense (538.00 yards/game)
#8 scoring offense (44.50 points/game)
Defense#3 total defense (185.33 yards/game allowed)
#24 scoring defense (15.00 points/game allowed)
#81 total defense (367.50 yards/game allowed)
#99 scoring defense (31.00 points/game allowed)

The numbers say a lot, and Arkansas is coming in as a huge underdog here. But a few points of interest:
  • Arkansas is a very bend-don't-break defense, as they've only allowed one more TD on the year than Alabama. This is a telling stat and one that needs to be taken into account (though Alabama is allowing 15 PPG against to Arkansas' 31 PPG against)
  • Some of this may have to do with strength of schedule. Also, and more importantly, Alabama was able to beat up on some mid-majors (two, Arkansas has only played one), while Arkansas had a bye week and allowed 52 points in their 41-52 loss against Georgia, during what proved to be a complete shootout.
  • Alabama allowed 24 points (and only scored 34) against Virginia Tech in the season opener. Va. Tech is 44th is scoring offense and 45th in scoring defense. 34 points for Alabama against Arkansas isn't going to get it done this week.
So what it really boils down to, in my opinion, is this: Can the Alabama defense contain Ryan Mallett who has proven to be an exceptionally accurate passer? Can Alabama keep up with the scoring frenzy that Arkansas is almost sure to unleash?

A lot of the pressure of this game falls on Alabama because of their position high in the Top 25 and Arkansas in the midst of rebuilding (although it appears they're nearly done). I expect this one to be close but for Arkansas to eventually run away with it because of their ability to constantly put up points.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sam Bradford and the Big 12's national perception

A lot has been made the last few years of the national perception of the various college football conferences. The SEC has been taking home top honors because of the conference's top-to-bottom speed, Florida's continued dominance, and the league's presence in the Top 25 poll. Last year, however, there was just as much talk about the Big 12 and it's three-headed monster of Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech, and their prolific, record-setting offenses. Led by Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, and Graham Harrell respectively, their teams set countless records for offensive efficiency as the league went on to be 1B to the SEC's national dominance.

Beyond these two divisions, the other four of the Big Six (Pac-10, Big Ten, ACC, Big East) were all relegated to fight amongst one another for the scraps national attention not spent on the big boys. None of these conferences felt more slighted than the fallen-from-grace Big Ten, a conference that, toward the end of 2006 was the mostly undisputed national power, watching Michigan and Ohio State square off in Columbus for the first #1 vs. #2 matchup in the rivalry's storied history. But then came OSU's frequent bowl-game flops, the implosion of Michigan, and the general apathy felt toward the rest of what appeared to be a dwindling league of teams unable to adapt--three yards and a cloud of dust; dinosaur ball.

2008 seemed like a weird year to anoint the Big 12, though. Undoubtedly, much of the conference's love came because of the starry-eyed all American boys leading the Southern powerhouses. They were easy to latch onto and put into the spotlight. The rest of the league? Well, they were about as good as the Big Ten. If you subtract the big three's record's from the Big 12 and the Big Ten's big two (Penn State and Ohio State) from 2008, their records are remarkably similar:

Big 12: 56-57
Big Ten: 56-57

Now I understand that in league play, someone has to lose and someone has to win. The eventual record of everyone in every division will always be .500. But for a conference that's supposed to be better than another conference, this just doesn't sit right with me. Nonconference games should create some sort of separation between divisions, right? Even if it's a small difference, a better conference should have better teams, top to bottom. But this record is all we really have to go on at the end of the day, besides head-to-head play, which ended in favor of the Big 12 with four wins to the Big Ten's one--a stat that separates the two slightly, but not enough to make up for the significant difference in national perception; five games is hardly a statistically significant amount, especially when two of the games ended within a touchdown of one another.


What do we make of the current Big 12 landscape, though, is the most important question. Last year, the Big 12 was supported largely by the play and success of Harrell, McCoy, and Bradford. Harrell was lost to graduation, and in the 30 minutes that we were able to see Bradford, his team produced a measly 10 points, a far cry from the 60+ points/game that the Sooners put up all last year. But more pressingly, Bradford is now injured, and while his backup is proving to be a relatively impressive starter in his own right, he clearly doesn't run the team quite like Bradford used to. With OU and TT already sitting with one loss (albeit TT's in the revenge game against Texas after last year's upset), the Big 12 looks geared for something of a downfall from the straw house it sat atop last year.

But this is where public perception becomes so important and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kansas currently sits #20 in the Top 25 polls, a team whose most impressive win came on the road against UTEP (?). Meanwhile, Iowa has beaten a Big 12 opponent (Iowa St.) on the road, as well as a Pac-10 opponent (Arizona) and is relegated to the Others Receiving Votes category. Iowa was ranked higher than Kansas preseason, but after a close win against Northern Iowa, they were dropped from the rankings completely. It stands to reason that when the media catches a single whiff of a weakness in a Big Ten team, the reaction is severe. Meanwhile, Big 12 teams can amass losses, and as long as they are against the oft-overrated Big 12 opponents suffer nary a consequence in the national rankings.

We'll see where this is headed with Bradford injured going into Big 12 play (with his predicted return sometime around the Texas matchup). For the national media, an entity that clearly puts a lot of emphasis on one or two national powers per conference, it may be time to rethink their stance on the Big 12. Without Harrell and OU tending back toward the mean sans-Bradford, this looks to be a particularly humbling year in the Big 12.

Postscript: This was not intended to be an impassioned argument for the Big Ten a la Adam Rittenberg, though I realize that it may have come off that way. Rather, it was my expressing skepticism at the strength of the Big 12 as a whole and it's crowning as an elite conference--which, for the record, I think is mostly bullshit anyway. There's little separation, top to bottom, between most of the conferences. Head-to-head wins are often cyclical, as is national dominance.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A portrait of misfortune: Marian Hossa

Sometime shortly after the Red Wings traded for Marian Hossa, my brother and I, both sons of Detroit, started talking about the team's chances to repeat. We both had the same idea, though he vocalized it first, "Hossa is the purest goal scorer the Wings have had since;" and I finished his sentence, "Sergei Fedorov. A young Sergei Fedorov." He was, too. Hossa had the kind of raw talent and moxie that only comes along once in a long while. He's not the kind of stable, consistent leader that Steve Yzerman was or the unstoppable force of Eric Lindros in his prime. No, Hossa was, and still is, a game changer. The player that always has to be accounted for, much like the last player of that ilk to wear the Winged Wheel, Fedorov.

It's somewhat ironic then, that as the Red Wings playoff drive swung into full gear, Hossa disappeared. Just like Fedorov used to. His speed seemed inconsequential. He made poor decisions. He rarely scored (and only in games that were mostly decided without his contributions). Hossa went from being, arguably, the most important player on the Red Wings, to a spectre of what could've been. He was the crux of the team; Hossa was the power and speed that any NHL team would die for on their second line. But with Hossa being relegated to the world of nondescript NHL forwards, he became as much a hindrance as a help: It's difficult to win when your success is based largely on the team's depth, and the depth suddenly disappears.

For Detroit fans, this was a feeling we had experienced all too often. Fedorov, while known as a great playoff performer in his early years, began to disappear in the playoffs (Pavel Datsyuk did so a few years ago as well). Old timers like Don Cherry will likely blame these players' respective disappearances on their European heritage and style of play. And maybe there's some truth to that. But that's too easy. It's too biased. Maybe it's the weight of expectations or the role that the Red Wings designate for such players. In any case, it's happened before and will likely happen again.


I went to get my oil changed yesterday at a drive-in repair shop. I was sitting there when one of the workers came walked by and commented on the hockey sticks in the back seat of my car. We got on talking about hockey and came to the realization that he's a Penguins fan and I'm a Red Wings fan. We joked for a few minutes before he said, "You know what makes it really great though? Marian Hossa." And I guess I understand that sentiment. Hossa, in a particularly brash move, more or less made a prediction about the season. He called his shot. He missed.

I try to understand the sentiment of Penguins fans. They felt slighted and angry. Someone had openly and publicly condemned their team, promptly left said team, and then lost sports' ultimate prize at the end of the season to the same group of guys he had left; It was a moral victory for Penguins fans. I understand the hatred. Sort of.

Except that Hossa did exactly what we hope all of our sports heroes will do. He was playing to win, regardless of the money. In a league like the NHL where your career can be ended with a errant puck or unfortunate, crippling check, Hossa risked his career for a team that he thought would win it all. How many times do athletes leave behind heaploads of cash, this early in their career, for a chance to win it all? Hossa, for all intents and purposes--his one, "The Wings have a better chance of winning than the Penguins" comment aside--is a stand-up guy. His only crime, really, was leaving a team just before their collective peak for a team that was already there. It was a bad move in retrospect.

Hossa will go down as one of the biggest dunces in the NHL history for hedging his bets and trying to win, especially if the Wings return to the top of the NHL this year or the promise the Blackhawks have shown never affords any tangible results. And he may consequently never get a chance to lift Lord Stanley's Cup. Pittsburgh may hate him. I can only sympathize.

Defending Georgia Tech's flexbone

Georgia Tech's path to a BCS bowl got a whole lot harder with their recent loss at the hands of a Miami team that is much, much better than anyone had expected. Still, I expect Paul Johnson to turn this outfit of ninja backs, the singular bowling ball back, and less than functional college quarterback, into a BCS worthy team. Johnson is an incredible coach capable of incredible things, but most importantly, he plays in a conference that isn't really full of teams capable of bringing down his schemes. The jury is still out on a Florida State Team that could be great but for now, looks to be idling in "very decent". Virginia Tech is another team, like Alabama, that hasn't really sold me yet--especially given their pounding at the hands of Alabama and meager win over Nebraska. And the other difficult game on their schedule is against a Georgia outfit that took a noticeable dip (from a rather tentative position to begin with) after losing Matthew "Baby Fat" Stafford to the Draft.

In short, I think that GT is the second-best team in the ACC (Miami leads the pack and North Carolina is not far behind GT). And while being the second-best team in a second-tier division is not really BCS worthy, Johnson has the kind of ingenuity that can lead this team to some big wins, catapulting them into top 5 territory. It can also lead to some serious flops like the one against Miami last week.

The biggest fear that GT has now is dealing with teams that use the Miami game as a template for how to stop Johnson's flexbone offense. Below are some screen shots of what Miami did to defend the unique offense.

Here you can see that Miami is lined up in what looks to be a traditional 4-3 set, however, you can see that three of the defensive linemen are bunched on the strong side of the field. This was done to clog that side of the field and force Josh Nesbitt to pull the ball more often instead of handing it off the Jonathan Dwyer for the dive play up the middle that he routinely turns into a big gain. But as you can start to see, the safety/LB on top of the screen is starting to take a few steps in, turning the defensive front into more of a 4-4 look. Then this happens:

You can see that Miami is now lined up in a full 4-4 set, the gap that would normally be there for Dwyer is occupied by the defensive tackle because of the overload (as well as the guard pulling across the formation to give extra blockers in case Nesbitt decide to pull the ball), and Nesbitt is forced to pull the ball and run the option himself. And because of Nesbitt's inability to throw the ball, there are now four linebackers spying him, creating favorable numbers for Miami. You can see where this is going.

Nesbitt is now staring at four unblocked defenders standing a yard or so beyond the line of scrimmage, all watching to see what he does with the ball--to say nothing of the defensive linemen who are breaking free. These linebackers crash down on the play behind the line of scrimmage and overwhelm the blockers. It ends like this:

Death. The hapless guard who pulled across the formation has to block two players while the rest of the Miami defense is giving chase in case Nesbitt pitches the ball to his option (RB Marcus Wright, #3). Even if Nesbitt does pitch it, the play is likely to end in zero yards. Instead, Nesbitt is brought down behind the line of scrimmage.

This is how Miami defensed the flexbone the entire game. And Johnson, for all of his wisdom and matchup abilities, seemed completely unable to do anything about it. Because Nesbitt is exactly zero threat to throw the ball, GT's offensive output turned out exactly how you'd expect: 95 yards rushing (39 attempts) and 2.4 YPC. An ugly outing.

I don't know that all the teams GT is going to face this year are going to have this level of talent or ingenuity on defense, and they'd better hope not. Because if they have any chance at making a BCS bowl this year, they have to avoid something like this from being replicated.

If you want to see it in action, in all it's high-def glory, the Internets have been gracious enough to afford us these things. Here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Debunking: Alabama

I'm not sold on Alabama. This is a team that, more than any other in the conference, has benefited from the media's love affair with the SEC over the last two years; a conference that, for all of the praise it's gotten, had all of 1.5 good teams last year (Florida and occasionally Alabama). Let's look at the numbers:

Alabama 2008 numbers
2008 offense: 42nd in yards/game; 35th nationally in points/game
2008 defense: 3rd in yards/game allowed; 6th in points/game allowed

Those are good numbers. But they look more like the numbers that a team like Ohio State puts up every year. Alabama gets the nod here, however, because they play in the immaculate SEC, which, again, was pretty mediocre last year. Alabama's best win came in a road game at the hands of a 10-3 Georgia team that was also largely overrated because of their conference. Their other two marquee wins came in a road game against an 8-5 LSU outfit, and a road game in the first game of the season against a 7-6 Clemson team. This resume and their subsequent production does not scream "National Contender" to me.

But the story gets worse for Alabama 2009: The nine players they lost to the NFL Draft/NFL. The first was Andre Smith, their star-turned-bust left tackle, who, before he went haywire, was talked about as a possible #1 overall pick. Their quaterback, John Parker Wilson. Their running back, Glenn Coffee. And a whole messload of other critical players. But the fact remains: Alabama, who may or may not have been a legitimate contender last year, lost the core of their offense and a number of different key defensive players. And yet they're still in the national picture as title contenders. Let us not forget what happened to them in the Sugar Bowl (which was basically a home game).

In their three games this year (#7 [#11 now] Virginia Tech, North Texas, and Florida Internatinal) Alabama is:

2009 Offense: 5th in yards/game; tied for 12th in points/game
2009 Defense: 3rd in yards/game allowed; 24th in points/game allowed

Those numbers seem more indicative of a team that has national title hopes. (Don't forget though: These are the nonconference cupcakes everyone schedules. They've looked good against them, but watch their numbers when SEC play rolls around.) And Alabama even has a win over what looks to be a good Virginia Tech team. But that's exactly how it happened last year too, only last year, it was Clemson who was highly ranked and dropped off significantly as the year went on. So do they deserve to be the unanimous #3 in the country right now? (Or more importantly, did they deserve to be #5 preseason, given the losses on their roster and performance against Utah in the Sugar Bowl?)

Alabama will continue to win games, but look for them to lose a few that you thought they wouldn't. A tentative 9-3 record this year, with possible losses to Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU, and Mississippi State--and they don't even have to play SEC big dog Florida. This team is no where near as convincing as they might appear this early this season. Don't believe the hype.

A lot can be made about the SEC beating each other up and losing a lot of games to one another, and, well, fine. That happens in a lot of leagues. The SEC doesn't have too many push overs a la the Big Ten, necessarily, but there are also separate tiers of talent in the league; it's not quite as overwhelmingly great as the national media would have you believe. To this, I can only shrug my shoulders and say, Meh. The Big Ten, for example, may have been a two-man league last year (Ohio State and Penn State), but Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Northwestern were no pushovers--the likes of many of those SEC teams that had been uniformly praised. Big Ten bowl-game woes--while they can not completely be dismissed--can be explained by the conference's national tie-ins, forcing not-that-great Big Ten teams to face off against the elite of other conferences. A re-alignment this year could cure these ills.

ESPN, bastion of logic

"The wildcat is a gimick, a gadget, and I'll tell you why. Look at last year: The Dolphins ran the wildcat 8.2% of the time and it gained 10% of the yards. Now, are you really that worried about that 2%?" -Ron Jaworski

This is the problem with the NFL. Who is allowed to say this on national television and still have their job in the morning? More proof that the NFL needs the spread.

The wildcat, the NFL, and complacency

Editor's note: Much of what I'll have to say below owes a lot to Chris Brown of Smart Football, specifically this article. It should be read.

I recently reviewed Madden 10. Before the game surprisingly showed up on my doorstep, I had mostly railed against the NFL and how little I actually enjoy it. A few friends observed that my complaints came shortly after my fantasy team was thoroughly shredded in week one. But I've always been bored with the game--almost certainly in large part because I grew up in Detroit, and well, I don't think I need to say much else. Frankly, I didn't even really get all that interested in college football until sometime in high school when my brother enrolled at the University of Michigan and I was looking around for similar options.

Many of the NFL's myriad problems can be, somewhat ironically, explained by early versions of the Madden series: Call a hail mary, drop back, hurl a completion for 40 yards. This isn't really an apt comparison, but it does demonstrate a few of the problems with NFL playcalling: Find the best players you can, make sure they execute as a professional player can (running routes, catching balls, etc.; which, ya know, isn't a problem in video games), and hope the quarterback does the right thing (or running back, if it's a running play). Simply put, NFL offenses are simple, and that makes the game, in my opinion, mostly boring.

It stands to reason, however, that college football, espeically prior to the current incarnation of NCAA football, was run similarly. The best players went to the biggest programs (Notre Dame, Michigan, Texas, etc.) and the smaller schools mostly fell by the wayside. That was until coaches started to realize that it was possible to beat these teams if you were smarter than them. Chris Brown addresses the issue:

But what of all those stories of Jon Gruden or Andy Reid getting only 45 minutes of sleep a night (and of course sleeping in their offices), and all the film study, 500 page NFL playbooks, and lengthy gameplans buttressed by exhaustive statistical analyses. This is the other 20%, which often is interesting. But it is interesting in a very specific way -- within the framework of the basic, repetitive concepts that compose the other 80%. NFL coaches are understandably obsessed with "matchups," a word favored by every football talking head. The coaches spend an incredible amount of time focused on how to get this receiver to go against that safety, this blitzing linebacker against that tight-end, or this pulling tackle against that defensive end. It's an evolving, repetitive, circular, intensive battle.

The spread offense, predominantly seen in college football, was created organically from football. It was a strategy designed to do exactly what NFL coaches are looking for: Matchups. Rich Rodriguez often says that one of his main goals is to get his players into space, 1-on-1 with defenders. If you recruit the right kinds of players (fast, shifty players designed to beat 1-on-1 assignments), isn't this the matchup that NFL coaches are interested in?

Brown goes on to explain that NFL coaches have no real incentive to try out new styles. Why would they risk their job on something that hasn't been tested extensively at that level and may, as Rodriguez has shown through his career, be disasterous until you get the right personnel? This makes sense. But one has to wonder why bottom of the barrel teams, like the Lions and Raiders, don't attempt the spread offense in an attempt to get out of the rut they're currently in.


What's most interesting about the spread and its application to the NFL is that in the brief moments that we do see, it's wildly successful. Take for example the Patriots, who Chris Brown also addresses:

It is no secret that the Patriots run the closest thing the N.F.L. has to a true spread offense, without the quarterback running game. New England regularly lines up with three, four or five wide receivers, and Brady practically lives in the shotgun. When teams try the ol’ trusty response of “get after the quarterback,” the Patriots bombard them — or, more accurately, fire at them with a barrage of bullets — with quick, lateral passes and quick screens to receivers, and draws and traps to deter the fast-rushing defensive linemen. The rest of the time Brady is essentially back there slinging it, and, with Moss commanding attention on the outside, Welker has lots of opportunities to make hash of opposing defenses.

The Patriots' success obviously can't be replicted everywhere because of the talent that the Pats have, their coaching, and Tom Brady's incredible accuracy. But what's more intriguing for me, is the two minute drill that teams run. A perfect example was the Tennessee/Steelers game that opened the 2009 NFL season. It was mostly a tepid, dull affair until the last three minutes of each half when, in an effort to put some points on the board before the half ends, each team spread the field and started the throwing the ball. Effectively.


It is not necessarily, then, the zone-read option that has become so widespread in the NCAA that NFL offenses should adopt. Rather, it's a little closer to Texas Tech's Air Raid offense that seems to be particularly effective--ironic then that Graham Harrell, TT's vaunted, record-setting QB went completely undrafted. This shift is not something that can happen quickly or easily. It is a top-to-bottom shift for whatever program first adopts the spread in full, a la the Patriots. (Sidenote: What happens to the Patriots when Brady eventually retires? An obvious question and one that seems not to offer any insight, but their success is almost wholly predicated on their system and not necessarily their QB. Do they continue their NFL-spread without Brady? Is it ever effective again?)

It's pretty obvious the side of the argument that I'm on. The wildcat is fine, but it's not enough. Maybe Tim Tebow's entrance into the NFL will be enough to have a team finally committ to some of these schemes, but that's unlikely as most are already talking about him coming into the league as a wildcat player or fullback.

The hero never loses

Recently, on a blog that was mainly intended for my musings about pop culture (specifically music), I got to talking about sports rather frequently, and certainly more often than some of my less-sports-inclined friends appreciated. Inspired mostly by the meanderings of Free Darko, I liked approaching sports through a different lens. I ended up writing for a long essay about how I thought that Dwight Howard wasn't really the MVP of the Orlando Magic (whatever that means), and that his freak athleticism but lack of advanced basketball skills would eventually lead to his downfall as the last of an era gone by the wayside. Needless to say, people disagreed.


Last year, in the midst of what can only be called a breakout season, I deemed Steve Breaston "Burgeoning Wolverine Star". I had taken him almost certainly too high in a fantasy draft of friends who laughed at me and told me I'm a homer and an idiot. I am likely one of the two. But as the season went on and Anquan Boldin continued to sit out while doctors reconstructed his face, Breaston turned into, well, kind of a good receiver. Always playing second fiddle to Braylon Edwards at Michigan, Breaston's skills seemed to put him in the "forgettable" category of NFL players hardly worth half their salary.

About a month before my 2009 fantasy football draft, I started telling everyone just how good Mario Manningham was going to be. Almost everyone laughed at me in one way or another. I referred to him as "a singular talent" and someone who, once given the opportunity, would shine; the New York Giants were in the position to afford such a situation. And lo and behold, just two games into the season, I've had friends begrudgingly tell me that he was, "*sigh*, a good pick" before subsequently going to pick him off the waivers in their other leagues. Not that I felt vindicated, per se, but I did feel a tinge of happiness, not only about being right but also seeing a "hero"--in whatever sense a third-string wide receiver who I've never met can be a hero--succeed.

One of the people that used to be in our fantasy league, the esteemed Todd Burns, said that the reason he left the league was because he was tired of having to root against his team for the sake of his fantasy projections. Drafting your heroes makes this more enjoyable.


And so Burgeoning Wolverine Star is borne into existence. My homerism will largely be absent, or at least as much as it's able to be withheld. I think Georgia Tech is the most interesting football team to watch on the weight of Paul Johnson's genius; I largely loathe watching the NFL, although I'll likely dedicate a lot of space here writing about it; and I'm of the belief that the world of sports is in the middle of a seismic shift wherein athletes surpass specialists--the difference between Pau Gasol and Shaq.

And hopefully, we'll all be able to root for our heroes.