Sunday, July 29, 2007

On National Champions (NCAAF)

If you are a college football fan, and you want to know if your team has a chance at the national title, there are only two things you need to look for. First, you need a veteran, talented defense. Second, you need a returning quarterback to lead your offense. If a running back is hands-down the most important offensive player, that is not a good sign. First, let’s look at how the last six champions fit the profile.

2006 Florida returned six defensive starters off a team that allowed 18.8 points per game, and Chris Leak, who had been starting since his freshman season.

2005 Texas was a perfect fit. They had nine starters returning on a defense that had allowed 17.9 points per game, and they also had Vince Young. They squeezed past Ohio State in the Horseshoe, USC in the Rose Bowl, and crushed everybody in between.

2004 USC returned six starters from a defense that had allowed 18.4 points per game, and Matt Leinart.

2003 LSU returned six defensive starters and Matt Mauck. They navigated the always-brutal SEC with a single loss, and pulled out three close games against Top 15 teams.

2002 Ohio State returned seven defensive starters, who were great, but Clarett was definitely their offensive star. They are a little bit of an exception. However, it is worth pointing out that it was Krenzel who stepped up and saved several late-season games that needed saving.

2001 Miami, led by Ken Dorsey and eight returning defensive starters, pretty much crushed everything in their path. They scored 43 points a game and allowed just ten. Also, if you don’t buy the interference call the next year, they fit again and perfect the system.

The list keeps going with Oklahoma and Huepel, FSU and Weinke, but I think we’re far enough. The theory is pretty sound. Winning the national championship, in football, is about winning the three or four games against teams almost as good as you are. Running teams tend to push around weak teams, and don’t always have a good Plan B when they come across a bigger, faster defensive front that can stack against the run and make them pass. On the other side of the ball, veteran defenses are less likely to fold when the talent and coaching level they play against jumps.

I think a good rule of thumb is that for a qualifying defense, a team must have at least six of eleven starters returning, and have given up less than 20 points per game. The “star quarterback” is a little more subjective. I also expect a team’s talent to have shown in the previous season: I have defined this broadly to mean they were ranked at any point. Now, who fits?

The SEC is lacking a good candidate. LSU and Arkansas have the defenses, but not the QBs, and Tennessee has a quarterback but lost over half the D. Florida lost both—although with just three defensive senior starters and a learning year for Tebow, they’ll be geared back up for 2008. With a blue chip true sophomore quarterback and a young defense, Georgia looks likewise a year away. Auburn almost fits, but Brandon Cox doesn’t really count as a star QB. Also, cruelly, the Tigers have all four of their toughest conference opponents (Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia) on the road. The best fit may actually be South Carolina, with Blake Mitchell and ten defensive starters returning from an outfit that allowed just 18.7 points per game. But since they spent all of last season unranked, I can’t see they have the talent level to emerge. Basically, the SEC goes eight deep without much real separation.

The Big Ten is also short on good fits. Ohio State loses Smith, and Michigan loses the defense. Wisconsin is more tied to RB PJ Hill than ever, since QB Stocco graduated. The Badgers are a perfect example of where running back teams can struggle. Their rush yards during a six-game stretch last season went 287, 12, 209, 307, 208, 241. Which of these games is not like the others? The Michigan game, of course, which ended up being the only one in between Wisconsin and a perfect season. But once the Wolverines had clamped down on the run, Wisconsin didn’t have any answers.

The one Big Ten team who does fit the profile is Penn State. There are signs that Anthony Morelli is going to live up to his considerable potential, and the defense should be very strong for the fourth straight year. With Notre Dame and Michigan in September, we will at least find out quickly.

The Big 12 also has a lone star team. Oklahoma doesn’t have an established quarterback, A&M is intriguing but doesn’t quite fit, and of course the entire North division is a mess, just as it has always been since the decline and fall of the Nebraskan Empire. All of which leaves us with Colt McCoy and the Texas Longhorns. While Colt is healthy, they are exceedingly dangerous, and while their biggest weakness is the secondary, both Oklahoma and Texas A&M are running teams. Barring a sophomore slump for McCoy, Texas has a great shot at running the Big 12.

The ACC has some potential. Miami, Florida State, and Boston College fit the ideal. Kyle Wright and Miami have been huge disappointments for a couple years running now, but this year’s team is reminiscent of Carson Palmer’s 2002 USC Trojans that turned that program back around. FSU is in a similar situation, with Drew Weatherford and Co needing to put together a solid, consistent season. Both squads need to do better with turnovers and close games, and both should. Boston College is the most often overlooked. They have put together three straight three-loss seasons, and this year they bring back all but two starters off a defense that held opponents to under 16 ppg last year. Add in seven offensive starters, including the leading passer, rusher and receiver as well as three senior linemen, BC should do very well. But then, why did Tom O’Brien leave?

Also, Virginia Tech is probably the best team in the conference; they return eight starters on each side of the ball, and their defense will be terrifying. However, with Branden Ore leading the offense from RB, and with iffy Sean Glennon behind center, I don’t think they are a national title contender. Add in solid squads like Clemson, Maryland and Georgia Tech, and the ACC will, like the SEC be a deep, entertaining conference this season.

The Pac-10 basically comes down to USC and that’s it. Shocking. With John David Booty and ten defensive starters, they have to be the national favorite. As a side note, Oregon is close to the ideal, except RB Jonathan Stewart is their star. Either way, with USC around, they’re only a side note.

The Big East is poised to follow up its strong run of last season. Brian Brohm and Louisville are the worthiest contender; West Virginia and Rutgers are all about running. It is very possible, since WVU gets Louisville at home, that the Mountaineers could run the regular season. However, I think they would be in a lot of trouble against their BCS title game opponent.

Outside the BCS, there are as usual no real title candidates.

In rough order, I would put the chances of the teams like this:

Favorite: USC

Contender: Texas

Dark Horse: Miami, FL
Boston College
Penn State
Florida State

And, just for fun, I’ll throw in some conference predictions:

SEC: Florida over LSU

Big Ten: Michigan

Big 12: Texas over Nebraska

ACC: VT over BC

P10: USC

Big East: WV

BCS games:

Title: USC over WV

Rose: Michigan over LSU

Orange: Louisville over VT

Fiesta: Texas over Hawaii

Sugar: Florida over Penn St.

Monday, July 9, 2007

On Future Topics

I am going to be away from internet connectivity for a while, but look for new features on or after July 21 on the subjects of: statistically rating NBA players, NBA free agency, major league ballparks, possibly more hockey depending on how much attention I decide the Sabres merit, and also one or two posts beyond the admittedly wide world of sports.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

On the Ticking Time Bomb Nature of Liking Buffalo Sports Teams (General)

Through rookie pay scales, arbitration, and restricted free agency, sports leagues tend to restrict salaries for incoming players. This is because the collective bargaining agreements, which allow for the regulation of this sort of thing, naturally act in the interest of players who are already in the league. As a result, the available supply of talented players is pushed down. Players generally are near, at, or just beyond their peak years when they are finally eligible to become unrestricted free agents, and can thus begin to demand long contracts with high salaries. Therefore, it is usually not optimal strategy for teams, especially small-market teams, to sign such players.

That said, this is terrible. Drury and Briere, in one day? To East teams? Then Zubrus? Who rubbed salt in the wound by saying it was a hockey decision and he only wanted to win?

My friend JP put it best: only in Buffalo could a team lose two captains in one day. To no other city could that ever, ever happen. Ever.

I still believe the Sabres will be able to lock in Vanek and Roy, that Connolly will be healthy and effective, that Miller will help them win games they shouldn’t, but still, this is just awful. And may God help us if we face Drury and the Rangers in the playoffs.

At least the Bills re-signed their All-Pro. Punter.