New podcast with the Solid Verbal on the BCS bowl games

I did a podcast with the great Ty and Dan of the Solid Verbal, previewing all the BCS bowl games. Listen to it here (and on iTunes as well).

Q&A on Holgorsen’s West Virginia “Airraid”

It’s up over at the great Clemson blog, ShakintheSouthland, in anticipation of the Orange Bowl between Clemson and West Virginia.

One clarification: In the Q&A I say I “agree” with Holgorsen’s preference for fullbacks over tight-ends. It should say that I “disagree”: (more…)

Things that are self-recommending – football statistics edition

Bill Connelly — the college football expert for Football Outsiders — has a new SBN Blog, Football Study Hall; such a fact is high on the list of self-recommending things. The idea for the site is to provide a one-stop shop for advanced stats for college football, with a bit more of a fan-flavor than some of the other “stat heavy” sites out there. And Bill’s already got some good stuff up:

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

The idea behind Success Rate is simple: every play is deemed successful or unsuccessful based on down, distance and yardage gained. Plays on first, second and third downs (and fourth, for that matter) all have as close to the same success rate as possible (between 40% and 45%).

To see what Success Rate tells us, exactly, let’s have a look at it in action. Two notes before moving forward:

1. Any reference to Success Rates as it pertains to rankings eliminates garbage time plays. Rankings are derived from plays that took place while the game was “close”: within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 in the second, 21 in the third, or 16 in the fourth.

2. As a frame of reference, the average success rate for FBS teams from 2005-10 was 41.6%. . . .

Ten Best Single-Season Success Rates, 2005-10
1. Hawaii (2006): 60.8%
2. Texas Tech (2008): 56.1%
3. Wisconsin (2010): 55.3%
4. Oklahoma (2008): 55.2%
5. Florida (2007): 55.0%
6. BYU (2008): 54.8%
7. Missouri (2008): 54.7%
8. USC (2005): 54.1%
9. Boise State (2010): 54.0%
10. Texas (2008): 54.0%

One of my favorite things about college football is how there are so many different ways to move the chains. Seeing a team like Wisconsin or Navy on the list above would be no surprise — they’re the prototypical grind-it-out, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust teams. But while Wisconsin locked down the three-spot, a run-and-shoot offense took the top ranking, while spread teams filled out most of the Top 10. Invention in college football derives from trying to find different ways to gain five yards, and in college football, there are many, many different ways.

(Speaking of invention … it really is incredible to see just how far ahead of the curve the Big 12 was when it came to the spread. Of the top ten teams above, four were from the 2008 Big 12 alone. That was truly the perfect confluence of innovation and skill position experience.)

Call it the Mike Leach effect, but he’s right that: other than a few other elite offenses and talent laden Florida and USC squads, the Big 12 had the brightest offenses of the decade. In any event, head over to Bill’s new spot.

Smart Notes – Bill Simmons, football in 1938, Mark Cuban – 2/19/2011

Football has changed. The New Yorker (yes) writes about one of the handful of most famous football players of the day, in 1938, and this is what it had to say:

Bill Platt is just about what you’d expect the captain of a Yale football team to be — tall, heavy, blond, and offhand. We stopped by to see him in his rooms at Berkeley College, one of the newest of the Yale dormitories, a few nights before the Harvard game and thoughtlessly kept him up an hour past bedtime. Platt played his last game of football Saturday; next year he’ll have to start thinking about a career, which may be either politics, a tradition in his family, or law. He’s not in any hurry to decide. As an undergraduate, he spent his summers fishing in Maine; he said it seemed like no time at all each year before he was reporting to Ducky Pond again for fall practice. …

Once, Platt said as we got up to go, he’d decided idealistically that he needed something besides football as a character builder, and the spring he left Andover he shipped as deckhand on an American freighter to Shanghai and back. It was, he thought, the most interesting experience of his life. “Did it help your character?” we asked. “No,” he said.

How should you split your rent? First read the study, then check out the calculator.

Bill Simmons creating the Bill Simmons sports and literary site, and it actually sounds kind of great. Be sure to check out Quickish/Shanoff on this. (Very happy Klosterman is on board.) Even though this is bankrolled by ESPN, I look at this as similar to Freakonomics going off the NY Times website. For all the hoopla about HuffPo/AOL, etc, I think this is really the model: a multi-platform channel that focuses on web content but offers podcasts, books, ebooks, and other media “consumption,” with an actual editorial voice. Again, read Dan’s take on this, who probably thinks about this stuff more than anyone on planet earth (not a surprise given his Harvard MBA and years in the online media world.

Why is college so expensive? Here’s a dialogue from the Times with David Leonhardt; Matt Yglesias with an old post and a critique of the “Olive Garden Theory of Higher Education.”

Bob Sanders, released. Sad story, but (a) injuries are brutal and (b) in the NFL you must be ruthless.

Don’t worry, Bryant is on the case. Supposedly HBO’s real sports is investigating the Cam Newton drama.

I still don’t buy that Mark Cuban’s playoff idea will go anywhere, even if he did set up some kind of entity.

Smart Notes – Trick passes, Rich Rodriguez, Emory Bellard- 2/12/2011

This has already gone everywhere:

There are two lessons to this: (1) this kind of trickery doesn’t always translate well to actual playing time, and obviously playing quarterback requires a lot of skills beyond this sort of thing and (2) this is still great stuff, but, related to (1), the football being an extension of you is merely necessary rather than sufficient to be a great quarterback. You can see this latter point in basketball: if you ever visit an NBA or even college practice, you can see the players doing unreal things with the ball, but in a game, with the pressure on and defense, it’s much more difficult. That said, you can also take the lesson that it takes more than being able to throw a couple of nice passes in backyard football (or to hit a few shots at the local gym) to be great. The real thing is always harder than it looks.

Emory Bellard has passed away. Bellard, father of the wishbone (he wanted to call it the “Y” offense), was the original from-high-school-to-the-big-leagues-with-a-wacky-offense guy:

Bellard was on Darrell Royal’s staff at Texas in 1968 when the Longhorns developed a formation with three running backs that came to be known as the wishbone.

He coached at Texas high schools for more than two decades and won three state titles. His success landed him on the Texas staff, and while other assistants relaxed during the summer before the 1968 season, Bellard was busy trying to figure out a way to utilize a strong group of running backs after Texas endured three straight mediocre seasons. (more…)

Smart Links – 2/9/2011

First, the chill:

chill

Explanation here. See also this paean to collegiate sports, also courtesy of EDSBS.

Are schools getting better at gaming the NCAA’s rules system? Blutarsky summarizes: “So while major infractions over the past decade maintained the same pace as they did in the 1990s, the NCAA categorized them more mildly (the “didn’t know” defense rears its head again) and punished less severely when they occurred. You can begin to understand why ADs like Mike Hamilton survive the transgressions of the Pearls and Kiffins of the college athletics world. Nobody expects to pay much of a price for them.”

Rewriting the book on libraries.

Negotiating and the FBI.

Did the blog Bruins Nation kill UCLA’s hire of Rocky Seto?

Alastair Campbell on leadership and winning.

Stewart Mandel on Saban’s oversigning defense.

The difficulty of making new discoveries.

Is debt good (for an individual)? Uh, no. For once I side against the theoreticians. Of course the theoreticians were writing in June of 2008, so maybe that’s why.

People believe what resonates with their prior held beliefs, an experiment. I think you can extrapolate this from politics to football recruiting and the incurrence or non-incurrence of penalties against or for your favored team.

Smart Notes – Venn Diagrams, Bowl Ratings, Kragthorpe – 1/20/2011

On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings, via Google Books. (Click to enlarge.)

Bowl Ratings drop 9%, via WizOfOdds:

A lot of this was predictable since so many bowls were moved to being on ESPN (and thus not on network television), but still an interesting datapoint.

The Fulmer Cup lives, over at EDSBS.

Kragthorpe to LSU? The word is that Louisville’s former head man is LSU’s new offensive coordinator. Believe it or not, this could actually work. Kragthorpe didn’t have much success at Louisville, but he (like Crowton?) is a smart guy, as I’ve written about previously here and here. Miles will take care of the program, so we’ll see if Kragthorpe has more success as just the OC.

Posnanski on the playoffs. Check it out here. Joe wonders:

The question, I think, is this: What’s the competitive point of an NFL season? Is it to determine the BEST team in the NFL? Or is it to give us a fun and easy-to-follow trail on the way to our Super Bowl party?

Journal of not-at-all-surprising. Jonah Lehrer on the importance of vacation:

And this is why vacation is so helpful: When we escape from the places where we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities — corn can fuel cars! — that never would have occurred to us if we’d checked in with the office everyday.

Too often, we fail to consider the ways in which our surroundings constrain our creativity. When we are always “close” to the problems of work, when we never silence our phones or stop responding to e-mail, we get trapped into certain mental habits. We assume that there is no other way to think about things, that this is how it must always be done. It’s not until we’re napping by the pool with a pina colada in hand — when work seems a million miles away — that we suddenly find the answer we’ve needed all along.

Quick game. Joe Paterno to return to Penn State . . . Packers’ Ted Thompson vindicated for picking Rodgers over Favre . . . Eleven Warriors points out that Adam Rittenberg was wrong about the “Tat 5″ . . . Auburn’s place among BCS Champions, by the numbers.

Smart Notes – Brady Hoke, Belichick, Chip Kelly’s offense next year – 1/12/2011

Hoke-a-mania. Michigan has hired Brady Hoke, prodigal son most recently of San Diego State. I don’t know much about Hoke — seems like a solid guy and he obviously wanted the job. The rumor is he’s bringing Al Borges with him to be offensive coordinator; I’m already getting lots of questions about his so-called “Gulf Coast Offense.” I don’t know where that name came from, but as far as I can tell he’s a pro-style guy: nothing too exotic. But he’s been an offensive coordinator for a long time (close to two decades), in three major conferences (the Pac-10 at Cal, the Big 10 at Indiana, and the SEC at Auburn), and when he’s had first-round NFL talent (Cade McNown at UCLA and Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown, and Cadillac Williams at Auburn in 2004) he’s had elite offenses.

I think that sounds about right. Michigan’s coaching search was explicitly about someone who wanted to build the program, not hiring the next offensive genius. And I can’t really argue with that — the Rodriguez thing ended badly. That puts on the onus on Hoke, however, as he must recruit and build the program from the ground up; there won’t be any reliance on a decided schematic advantage to win. But is that a bad thing?

Below are some clips of Borges’s offense at San Diego State this year.

Richard Sandomir takes down Brent Musburger. Ouch. I don’t know if I thought it was as bad as described in the article, but I have to admit that “This is for all the Tostitos” was an unreal comment.

Pat Dooley apologies for “dumb” tweet. This really is crazy; what made him say that about Frank Beamer?

Chase has a great article over at the NYT; read it here:

Tom Brady, the presumptive M.V.P. winner this year, was the 199th pick in the 2000 draft. The Patriots’ leading rusher, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, wasn’t drafted. Neither was their leading receiver, Wes Welker. Danny Woodhead ranks just behind Green-Ellis in yards from scrimmage but he wasn’t one of the 23 running backs selected in the 2008 draft. The rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught 10 touchdown passes, qualifies as a superstar by Patriots standards: he was the 42nd pick in last April’s draft. Of New England’s eight most productive offensive skill position players — Brady, Green-Ellis, Woodhead, Welker, Deion Branch, Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Tate — only Gronkowski was a top-60 draft pick.

… The Patriots led the N.F.L. in points scored. They threw the most touchdowns passes… They ranked second in rushing touchdowns and in net yards per pass attempt…. So how does Belichick turn an offense that appears marginal on paper into a dominant unit? …Conventional wisdom would suggest that Belichick is both a master of the draft, finding gems with late-round picks, and a fantastic coach in the truest sense of the word, able to turn young men into elite players with his tireless attention to detail.

[I]t goes a step further than that. The Patriots, for the first time in the past few seasons, have regained a level of organizational clarity that few teams can match. When Scott Pioli and Belichick built the championship Patriots teams at the beginning of the decade, New England consistently added “their guys,” players who fit the Patriot profile. With the drafting of Hernandez and Gronkowski, and the re-acquisition of Branch, to go along with Welker and Brady, the Patriots are back to finding players who, first and foremost, fit their system. Green-Ellis, Woodhead and Branch wouldn’t succeeed on a lot of teams, but Belichick knows exactly what he wants out of every roster spot and only looks for players who possess those traits. And that’s a big secret of his success.

Top Ten Sports Business stories of 2010, by Andrew Brandt.

Did Chip Kelly not run this year’s offense in the National Championship game, and instead next year’s offense? Bruce Eien thinks so, as they will have three very good backs next season. Here’s Bruce’s visual preview (click to enlarge):

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Limiting possessions key to victory?

Chase, from the comments:

I agree that blitzing is not necessarily a good underdog strategy, because limiting possessions seems to be the biggest underdog key. People talk about controlling the clock, but that doesn’t make any sense in a vacuum. When Miami held the ball for over three times as long as the Colts in that Monday Night game last year, people talked about how brilliant it was to keep Manning off the field for 45 minutes.

But the Colts and Dolphins had the same number of possessions in the game, so who cares? The point isn’t to hold the clock, the point is to minimize variance. That’s the real advantage of controlling TOP, but giving up a ton of big plays on defense and having a methodical offense won’t help you win games no matter how great your TOP is.

So what can an underdog do?

(1) There is one real way to win the all-important possessions battle: control the ball at the end of each half. Combined with other possessions-minimizing techniques, you could end up with 9 possessions to your opponent’s 8 possessions, which is a legitimately valuable edge. If you get the ball with 8 minutes left, it probably makes sense to start thinking about a 2-for-1 with possessions. If you get it with 5 minutes left, figure out if you should go 2-for-1 or if you can drain all 5 minutes. With 3 minutes left, you have to ensure that you have the ball last. Do that in both halves, and you’ve stolen a possession (ideally, scoring a TD with as close to triple zeroes as possible).

(2) Going for it on 4th down is another obvious underdog strategy. In addition to it being a legitimate favorite strategy — going for it on 4th down is the correct play far more often than conventional wisdom dictates, and the correct player is almost always a good favorite strategy — it helps increase variance.

(3) Kicking field goals is almost certainly a loser. Going for it on 4th and G from your opponent’s 10 may not sound like a great idea, but even if you only gain 5 yards, odds are you will prevent the other team from scoring. The more times you can force your opponent to start drives inside their own 10, the better, because research shows that teams are overly conservative in that area. Only in blatantly obvious FG situations should an underdog kick — punting and trying to pin inside the 5 is also a good strategy.

(4) On defense, I think bend but don’t break is the correct strategy. If you can force the opponent to chew up clock and kick a FG, that’s a big win. Chewing up clock conquers all, I think. Once again, the goal should be 9 possessions to 8. Although obviously TOs would be very nice.

(5) On offense, chewing up clock is good but scoring touchdowns is better. I think whatever play is TD-maximizing, whether it’s going for it on 4th down, being run heavy, being pass heavy, being trick-play heavy, whatever, is the goal. A flea-flicker that goes for a 60-yard TD might turn it into a 10-to-9 possessions game, but who cares if you score a TD on that possession?

(6) On offense, I think a modified no-huddle offense following plays where the clock is running is the key. Following a run or completion that lands in bounds (or out of bounds before the clock stops in the final 5 mins), the offense should immediately run up to the LOS to prevent the defense from substituting. Then, they should simply milk the clock for the full 40 seconds (with some variance so defenders can’t time the snap) by doing whatever. Actually calling the play, wasting time, twiddling their thumbs, it doesn’t matter. But preventing defensive substitutions would seem to be a strong underdog strategy.

(7) Special teams would be the overlooked key here. Winning the field position battle, the hidden yardage in football, is an easy way to level the playing field.

My only question: Is it more important for an underdog to limit the overall number of possessions or the relative number of possessions (or both?). This analysis seems to indicate that there are too few onside kicks. For more, see also here and here and here.

But, see this surprising result:

… The team receiving the ball [at the beginning of the first half] consistently lost the half (except in 2008)…. The receiving team will have as many possessions if not one more than the kicking team [during that half]. Yet the data clearly show that the kicking team has won more game halves than the receiving team….

I next ran the data to see how teams receiving the ball at the start of the second half succeeded. The data show the game results of the team receiving the ball in the second half. Again, the team kicking to open the second half won more games than the receiving team.

Smart Links – Strategery round-up – 1/3/2011

Along the Olentangy has some great previews of Arkansas in anticipation of Ohio State’s bowl game. As Ross notes, Petrino’s likes to gash the opposite over the top with big plays, including on the great “Mills” pass Spurrier made famous:

millsy

And when not throwing the deep ball, Petrino’s favorite series is the shallow or drive series. Ross observes that Petrino mixes and matches where the dig will come from as compared with the shallow (i.e. from the same side or opposite the shallow) but that Bobby likes to send the back on a wheel route to clear the way for the shallow:

shallow

Sometimes though — as shown below against Alabama — the defense fails to cover the runner on the wheel route.

Read the whole thing.

I’ll have more to say about this, but Runcodhit has some excellent stuff about Oregon’s run game concepts. Specifically, it combines the outside zone play with the read of the defensive tackle or three-technique. (See also here.)

The upshot of this adjustment is it makes irrelevant the typical games defenses play to counteract “midline-esque” run plays, because if the linebacker scrapes inside to take away the quarterback he is widely out of position for the outside zone to the sideline. (For bonus material, check out this post about zone blitzes with split-safety defenses.)

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