Smart Football Blogpoll – Week Two…late edition

Well, I accidentally submitted this poll too late to count for the overall poll (seen here), though that is probably for the best. Mine was a bit of a monstrosity. Discussion follows the poll. I’ll be back on schedule next week.

Rank Team
1 Florida
2 Texas
3 Southern Cal
4 Alabama
5 Penn State
6 Brigham Young
7 Boise State
8 Oklahoma State
9 Ohio State
10 Mississippi
11 Georgia Tech
12 TCU
13 Utah
14 Cincinnati
15 North Carolina
16 Nebraska
17 Notre Dame
18 Miami (Florida)
19 Oregon State
20 Kansas
21 Texas Tech
22 Missouri
23 Tennessee
24 Michigan State
25 Clemson

So, the first thing I did was eliminate every team that lost. Is that rational? I don’t think so, but the BlogPoll instructs that results are supposed to be about what happened on the field. Now, later on I will definitely count close losses, etc into a fuller vision of teams, but for now I thought I’d try this. Among the remaining teams I just employed my gestalt approach: a blend of likelihood of winning the big one, reward for playing well, and elements of a “power poll.”

Carving up the Sooners: Y-sail with an “angle” tag

maxhall1A result as surprising and significant as BYU’s 14-13 upset of the Oklahoma Sooners does not come without storylines: Sam Bradford was knocked out of the game and all-star tight-end Jermaine Gresham did not play, and OU could only manage 13 points; BYU’s defense forced a field goal through a goal-line stand; and BYU overcame four turnovers (to only two by OU) to win the game in the waning minutes. All these were critical, but it is also clear that BYU could not have won the game without the efficient and calm (if not always smooth) performance from quarterback Max Hall, who threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns on 26 for 38 passing.

The performance was notable for the precise way Hall moved the Cougars up and down the field. If not for the turnovers (particularly the fumble before the half near the goal line), BYU could have potentially iced the game sooner. And, other than the two interceptions (both of which were not great), Hall did a wonderful job standing in against OU’s pressure-based defense and finding his open receivers. Other than a couple of plays, it was a game of steady completions, not long gains.

What is old is new. When Bronco Mendenhall took the job in Provo, he hired Robert Anae to coordinate his offense. Anae had up until then been the offensive line and running game coach for Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and he brought with him a modified version of Leach’s vaunted Airraid.  This was something of an homage to BYU years gone by, as the Airraid offense itself is a modified version of the offense LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow had run in Provo for years. Anae, who played for Edwards and Chow, has kept many of the concepts that make the offense go while dressing it up with more traditional sets — and a more traditional run game.

Good offense, better jacket.

Good offense, better jacket.

This experience with Leach also gave Anae some experience coaching against Bob Stoops’s OU defense, which is quite deadly and can swarm an unprepared team. Indeed, Stoops is willing to go completely unsound in his zone-blitzes; in the National Championship game against Florida, one of Tebow’s interceptions came on a play where the Sooners blitzed six guys and played an inadequate zone coverage. While there are holes in the zone, Stoops figures that it is not easy for the quarterback to identify these while multiple defenders are breathing down his neck — the chalkboard is one thing but the game is another. Thus the onus would be on Hall — and BYU’s line and runningbacks — to protect long enough to find the open receivers.

One concept common to both Leach and Anae’s offenses is called “Y-sail.” The basic idea is to run one man vertical, another on a 10-15 yard out, and another in the flat, to “high-low” read the defense. Check the link here from Trojan Football Analysis with a diagram and video from TTech.

Adjusting to win. But the value of all plays comes in their adjustments, and the most common adjustment for the Y-sail play is to tag the play with an “angle.” With this adjustment the receiver who normally goes to the flat begins like he is doing just that, but then he reverses field and “angles” back inside on a slant-type route. The reason this works is that the “sail” or “out route” typically pulls a defender upfield; the “angle” receiver runs right underneath him.


Florida’s no-huddle: More plays for me equals less chance of you winning

For all the talk of more pro-sets and and putting Tebow under-center, the biggest change the Florida Gators may installed on offense is a new “bonsai” (or “bonzai”?) package: a no-huddle look they got from Oklahoma whereby they can use multiple tempos — i.e. line up and call the play right away, or line up, get a look at the defense, and call a play. Specifically:

Word from Gator Country ($) is that the Gators’ no-huddle package, deployed sparingly in the steamrolling of Charleston Souther, is called either “banzai” or “bonzai” or “bansai” or something. (Gator Bytes confirms this.) . . . .

The idea is stolen from Oklahoma’s hurry-up, which helped power their near-unstoppable 2008 offense. . . .

There are many reasons to use this scheme, but one of them is that Florida simply has better talent than most (all?) of its opponents. And if you have more talent than your opponents then you want to get as many “trials” as possible to maximize your chance of winning. Conversely, an optimal game for an underdog would be where they managed to get lucky, score early, and end the game right there. In other words, the underdog wants a high variance strategy. The hurry-up no-huddle for Florida (I know they will use different tempos) is a way to get more of these trials. Think of it this way. There is very little chance of Kentucky beating Florida this year. It’s not impossible; we could think of what would have to happen. Tebow would have to play awful, Florida would have to turn it over, blow some coverages, fumble a kickoff or punt or two, and Kentucky would have to take advantage of all of those mistakes. In other words, they’d have to be very, very lucky. Unless you are a partisan or don’t understand statistics, you have to admit that if Florida and Kentucky played 1,000 times Kentucky might win at least one of them. If Florida runs more plays than usual (Oklahoma ran more plays than any team in college football last season), then this is like factoring in extra games into a single one — the Gators would have more opportunity to smooth out instances of the other team getting lucky.

Of course I’ve previously discussed this dynamic of underdog and favorite (or “David” and “Goliath” strategies):

Going extreme hurry-up to get as many plays as possible — other than endurance, I suppose — is a Goliath strategy: it decreases variance by increasing the number of trials. The chance of getting only heads and no tails in five coin flips is much higher than it is in a hundred — i.e. the impact of the law of large numbers or regression to the mean. If Oklahoma has significantly more talent, better schemes, and everything else than the underdog, then the more plays it run the more likely it is to exhibit its raw dominance over the underdog; the underdog is less likely to “steal” a few good plays and get the heck out of dodge. The principle is the same as the difference between an underdog winning a game in a single-elimination tournament and trying to win a seven-game series: the seven-game series is far less likely to produce upsets.

The logic runs exactly opposite for Florida’s opponents this year, all of whom are likely to be considered underdogs:

As explained above, the higher variance and thus David-favoring strategy is to reduce the number of “trials” — i.e. plays. This is where a passing strategy and a strategy that involves “shortening the game and keeping it close” might run counter to each other. Incomplete passes typically stop the clock (I can’t keep the college clock rules in my brain anymore), as do plays where the ballcarrier goes out of bounds, which is more common on passes (same with the clock rules). If an underdog were to get an early lead, they obviously would love it if the game effectively ended right there. Yes, there is much to say about the problems inherent in not playing to lose and all that, but those are means questions, not ends. And all can agree that an underdog would love to get an early lead in a game against a favorite and have the clock run out as fast as possible.

Whether or not Meyer had stochastic reasoning in mind when he went to this, this kind of strategy should benefit his team overall, but especially against overmatched opponents; it’s kind of like upset-repellent. Even if the Gators got down and played poorly, they would always have the option of lengthening the game and evening out the probabilities.


Scheme sizzler: FSU and Jimbo Fisher’s bootleg with receiver motion

ponderingThe Hurricanes edged out the Seminoles 38-34 in last night’s wonderful, if unexpected, coming out party for Jacory Harris and Christian Ponder. Mark Whipple, Miami’s new offensive coordinator, is — for the moment, at least — the new offensive genius in the state of Florida, and I will definitely cover his Jacory-led-West-Coast-offense-meets-the-Greatest-Show-On Turf-Attack in the near future. (I could swear that he had a section of his callsheet called “Instant thirty-yard gain off a play-action pass — for First Down use only.”) But Jimbo Fisher, FSU’s offensive coordinator, called a pretty nice game himself, and until the final drive Miami’s defense showed little ability to stop FSU quarterback Christian Ponder, who had just shy of 300 yards passing. Fisher gashed Miami’s defense several times with a bevy of plays, including a could wonderful, if not unlikely, quarterback draws with a lead back and a pulling guard.

The best call of the night was maybe Christian Ponder’s twenty-one yard bootleg pass to Taiwan Easterling that extended the Seminoles’ lead and set the score at 23-14. The play itself was simple, but Fisher had set it up previously: The ‘Noles aligned in a basic “trey” set (tight-end and two receivers to the same side; single runningback; single receiver backside) and motioned the slot receiver into the formation. The first time or two Fisher just called a simple inside zone play to the tight-end side. But down the stretch he called the counter, diagrammed below:


The video below shows the true flavor. Again, the ‘Noles had run the play already, so the defense was ready to jump all over the run play to the frontside. And, further, the man (apparently?) responsible for Easterling, Miami’s #24 Chavez Grant, plays the motion slow and doesn’t follow Easterling full speed. Thus when the linebackers all crash down for the run play — and Ponder makes a nice play to deliver the ball — no one is anywhere near Easterling. See the video below; the bootleg is the second play in the clip. (The first play just appeared to be defeating man coverage; I could not see what any safeties were doing.)

Of course, as good as Fisher’s calls were he wasn’t able to guide his offense into the end zone at the end, and Miami walked away with a victory in one of the best (read: most entertaining) games I’ve seen at least since last year’s Texas Tech-Texas masterpiece. In terms of predictions for both teams, I can only add a few words: If the offenses can keep it up, the difference between BCS game and mid-level bowl will hinge on the defenses; that upcoming Oklahoma-Miami game has taken on a far different complexion than it had just a week ago; and this game may just be a prelude to an eventual Canes-Noles ACC Championship game.

Role of “tacit knowledge” in football

This might boil down to a fancy way to say something that should be obvious, but I found it interesting. When we talk about “knowledge” in the abstract we usually think of our brains like we do our hard drive: I now have more stuff in there, delineated and built up from a set of logical statements and propositions — i.e. I could, if asked and given the time, explain and write out everything I know. Yet our “knowledge” can go beyond this, to skills that can’t be boiled down to logical propositions, but no doubt improve our efficacy. Imagine if our brain was a computer, but as we added more “knowledge” the processor got faster, it could handle more information at once, and more accurately and consistently found the right answer and applied it quickly. (Pretty much the opposite of how computers actually work; they work best the less they have been used.)

Well there’s a bunch of formal thought with this. I’ve touched on how  just brain processes generally can affect players, but what about coaches and other non-athletic heat-of-the-moment decisions?

Tacit knowledge, by Daniel Little: Scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi introduced the idea of “tacit knowledge” in his 1958 book, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Google Books link)[,] as a critique of the positivist conception of scientific knowledge and the idea of knowledge as a system of logical statements. Polanyi was trained as a physician before World War I; worked as a research chemist between the wars; and found his voice as a philosopher of science subsequently.

This []concept[] captures an important dimension of knowledge absent in most philosophical treatments of epistemology (“knowledge is a system of true justified beliefs”). The simple idea is that there are domains of knowledge [not] represented propositionally or as a system of statements, but []rather[] embodied in the knower’s cognitive system in a non-propositional form. This … is more analogous to “knowing how” than “knowing that”. Polanyi gives the example of a physician in training learning to “read” an x-ray. What is first perceived simply as an unintelligible alternation of light and dark areas, eventually is perceived by the experienced radiologist as a picture of a lung with a tumor. So the physician has somehow acquired a set of perceptual and conceptual skills that cannot be precisely codified but that permit him/her to gain a much more knowledgeable understanding of the patient’s hidden disease than the novice. . . .

It is unremarkable to observe that many aspects of skilled performance depend on “knowledge” that cannot be articulated as a set of statements or rules (link). The basketball guard’s ability to weave through defenders and find his way to the basket reflects a complex set of representations of the court, the defenders, and probable behaviors of others that can’t be codified. So it seems fairly straightforward to conclude that human cognition incorporates representations and knowledge that do not take the form of explicit systems of statements. Rather, these areas of knowledge are more “intuitive”; they are more akin to “body knowledge.” But they are nonetheless cognitive; they depend on experience, they can be criticized and corrected, and they are representational of the world. (Talk to a skilled athlete about a complex task like finding a shot on goal in hockey or beating the defender to the basket, and you will be struck by the degree of intuition, gestalt, and realism that is invoked. And the same is true if you talk to an experienced labor organizer or a police detective.)

What is striking about Polanyi’s position in Personal Knowledge is that he shows that [this does] not pertain solely to physical skills like wine-making, playing basketball, or piloting a tug boat. Instead, they extend deeply into the enterprise of scientific knowledge itself. An experimental chemist or physicist has an uncodified ability to interpret instruments, evaluate complex devices, or recognize unexpected results that is the result of experience and training and cannot be reduced to a recipe or algorithm. [Same goes for football coaches seeing patterns in defenses, etc.]

. . .This line of thought converges to some extent with arguments that Hubert Dreyfus advanced in What computers can’t do: A critique of artificial reason in 1972. (Here is his update of his position; What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason.) Dreyfus was fundamentally critical of artificial intelligence research in the 1960s, and the strategy of attempting to codify expert knowledge in the form of a set of rules that could then be implemented as computational algorithms. His position was a phenomenological one; basically, he took issue with the idea that cognitive competences like chess-playing, problem-solving, or pattern recognition could be reduced to a set of precise and separate rules and statements. Instead, there is a holistic aspect in ordinary practical knowledge that cannot be reduced to a set of discrete algorithms.

Of special interest for Understanding Society is the question of whether ordinary people have “tacit social knowledge” of the social world they inhabit (link, link, link). What is involved in the competence a person demonstrates when he/she successfully navigates a formal dinner or a contentious union-hall argument? Can the knowledge that the competent social participant has about expected behavior from particular individuals be represented as a sum of propositional beliefs? Or, more plausibly, is this a good example of tacit knowledge, more akin to a rough map of a terrain than a codified set of statements? . . . All of this makes me think that we need richer models of mental life and competence than we currently possess (link). [Coaching and executing on the field strikes me as as much about tacit knowledge as with any kind of formal knowledge.]

Urban Meyer to N.F.L. coaches: I’m not impressed

gators-coach-urban-meyerFrom Judy Battista’s great New York Times piece from the weekend:

On the horizon is the University of Florida’s star quarterback, Tim Tebow, who will enter the draft next year. He could open the door to what was once virtually unthinkable in the N.F.L.: a quarterback with the size and sturdiness of a linebacker who reads the defense and has the freedom to run as often as he passes in the college-style spread-option offense.

In many ways, change has been forced on the N.F.L. because defenses are so fast and complex, and because fewer drop-back passers, fullbacks and blocking tight ends are being produced in a college game dominated by the spread.

So it is little surprise that almost all N.F.L. teams occasionally use a four- or five-receiver offense, and that Florida Coach Urban Meyer, who has all but perfected the spread with the Gators after giving it prominence at Utah, has been asked for advice from at least four N.F.L. teams, including the New England Patriots.

“I think it would have worked years ago,” Meyer said. “No one has had enough — I don’t want to say courage — no one has wanted to step across that line. Everyone runs the same offense in the N.F.L. A lot of those coaches are retreads. They get fired in Minnesota, they go to St. Louis. They get fired in St. Louis and go to San Diego. I guess what gets lost in the shuffle is your objective is to go win the game. If it’s going to help you win the game, then you should run the spread.”

I particularly liked his line about everyone running the same offense in the NFL. I, of course, wrote the same thing several weeks ago, and had many people tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about. (And anytime both Urban Meyer and Mike Leach are roughly on the same side of an issue, then that is probably the correct side.) And, Meyer might be a college guy, but he’s good friends with Belichick and, as the article pointed out, multiple N.F.L. teams have contacted him.

But things are changing. Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis.

Quick notes 9/5/09

Quick thoughts on some of today’s games, some still in progress. As of 5:45 pm EST.

  • Next week – Notre Dame vs. Michigan – This match-up now looks a whole lot more interesting. For ND, their ability to shut down Nevada’s spread bodes well for the defense this year. For Michigan, their offensive outburst bodes well generally. The Wolverines sudden efficiency and explosiveness is fueled by improved quarterback play and line play — the bulwarks of any good offense (or banes of any bad offense).
  • Oklahoma State can’t quite score at will on Georgia, but their defense  does seem improved under new DC Bill Young. Either that, or Georgia can’t replace Moreno and Stafford as easily as we may have thought.
  • Purdue scored 52 points and rushed for over 300 yards en route to beating Toledo (Pat Forde picked this game as an upset special of the week). That makes their matchup with a wounded Oregon team something to watch. Will the Ducks take their aggression out on the new-look Boilermakers? Or will they roll over?
  • Navy’s ability to run their O against Ohio State indicates bad things for OSU against USC. It also is bad news for the rest of the country that has to play Georgia Tech. What do you think the ratio of future NFL players was between Navy and OSU? GT is not quite OSU but they have it a little better than Navy.
  • Baylor’s QB Robert Griffith is great.
  • Jonathan Crompton played an improved game for Tennessee, particularly after some early troubles. If this team wants to win he has to play well.
  • Northern Iowa had bad clock management at the end of the game against Iowa. They got a first down around the thirty or so with 17 seconds left; that stops the clock until the ball is set. They got to the line but didn’t have a play ready, the clock ran down to 7 seconds, and then they had to use their final timeout. Generally you want to keep your final timeout for you to get your kicking team on; that’s what they did (they attempted their first field goal attempt then) but they could have run another play and gotten further downfield. And, who knows, it could have been the difference: longer field goal attempts (the first was about 40 yards) tend to come off the kicker’s foot at a flatter trajectory. A shorter kick might have been harder to block. Who knows.
  • Finally, my preview of Mizzou – Illinois seemed accurate. Juice hasn’t turned it over a lot (and Benn and RB Ford have left the game with injury), but the game hinged on Mizzou QB’s Gabbert’s play, and he’s played great in his first as a starter. On a day when Chase Daniel got cut from the Redskins, seeing his alma mater blow out the Illini has to be uplifting.

Game day open thread

I won’t be able to post at least until tomorrow, but don’t forget to follow me on twitter, where I’ll be updating throughout the day.

Also, check out my preview for Dr Saturday one of the interesting but under the radar games, Mizzou vs. Illinois.

Here’s a final thought: I have no problem with Oregon suspending Blount for the season, and I agree that it is good to keep him on the team. For his sake, at least, I hope he works toward a very important goal he still has remaining: the NFL draft, where a year of good behavior and rehabilitation (coupled with his existing talent) could do him wonders.

Deconstructing: Preview of Boise State vs. Oregon

Now up over at Yahoo’s Dr Saturday. Check it out.

Game day: Let’s get it

Game Day

It’s game day. College season begins tonight. Grab a cocktail,* find a comfy chair, and settle in. The season is going to go by faster than you think.

In the interim, check out my column today for the NY Times Fifth Down Blog, about zone blitzing.

* I recommend a Tom Collins or an Old Fashioned, though maybe go easy if you’re not quite in mid-season form.

Tom Collins

  1. ice cubes
  2. 2 oz. dry gin
  3. 2 oz. lemon juice
  4. 1 teaspoon sugar (gomme) syrup
  5. soda water
  6. slice of lemon

Old Fashioned (two recipes, I think every man should know how he likes his)

  1. 2 ounces (60 ml) bourbon
  2. Splash of simple syrup or 1 cube sugar and just enough water to dissolve the sugar
  3. 2 dashes bitters
  4. Old Fashioned glass
  5. Place sugar (or syrup), bitters, and water in old-fashioned glass
  6. Crush sugar if needed and coat glass
  7. Add 2–3 cubes ice and whiskey
  8. Garnish with twist

And an old school version:

  1. Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey glass
  2. Add two dashes Angostura bitters
  3. Add a small piece of ice
  4. Add a piece lemon peel
  5. Add a (1.5 ounces or 44 mL) whiskey
  6. Mix with small bar spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.