needs moar usage
i bet no one reads this whole thing
warning: internet/sports journalism/meta post. it's six on friday so no bitching.
via press coverage
Way back in the mists of time when I'd just been fired from my engineering job for not doing much actual engineering I was wondering whether or not I actually wanted another one when Jamie Mottram emailed me. He asked if I'd be interested in being a "lead" for the college football section of this Fanhouse thing he'd convinced AOL to start*. I said yes and my career as a pants-optional blogger started.
A couple years later, Mottram was at Yahoo and I was on the phone with a guy who seemed to put "-ize" at the end of every verb trying to convince him that Adam Jacobi was a key asset even if he kept posting conversations with Joe Paterno in which he decried DIRTY IRISHMEN. This was the middle of the end, and a couple months later I was out, too.
By that point I didn't much care. I'd stopped posting much because headlines like "God Not A Big Fan Of Sam Maresh, Says Sam Maresh" were getting converted into things like "Sam Maresh Has Further Health Problems." The thing I owned was making sufficient money that I didn't have to put up with aggravation for ten bucks a post.
When I latched on with Sporting News a couple months later it was mostly so I could tell people I wrote for Company You've Heard Of X when that was convenient or lent credibility, and when that got shipped over to SB Nation I cut my workload there down to a couple things I do weekly. The business story of the blog is gradually in-sourcing all of the writing I do, even if it's about the World Cup.
"We're Not Bleacher Report"
Elsewhere, not so much. When AOL decided to blow Fanhouse up and give the Sporting News the brand for five million a year, I wasn't surprised. Ben Koo made a case that it was a stupid move, but we are talking about a company that's had a half-dozen people run Fanhouse in under five years, let Mottram walk out the door, immediately undermined his replacement with HAWT TITS, reversed course on that after 90 seconds, and then did another 180 to hire Jay Mariotti. It's not a surprise AOL has changed course wildly, hoping that doing the exact opposite of their last stupid idea will be the opposite of stupid.
What is something of a surprise is the naiveté shown by some of the outgoing. Dave Kindred interviewed a few of them for IU's National Sports Journalism Center and it's like they've never been part of an aging relic with a declining legacy business before:
"In December," Lisa Olson said, "we were told how great we were doing." Once a columnist at the New York Daily News, Olson remembered The National strutting on stage in 1990, a national sports newspaper hiring good people from everywhere. She thought of FanHouse that way, a gathering of veterans on a journalistic adventure. "We were all experienced and qualified, not some 25-year-old bloggers," she said. "The motto was, ‘Go, go, go. Grow, grow, grow.' And we did. Then, this. It's devastating."
This one in particular even referenced "The National," which lasted all of 18 months. Another complains "we had no idea this was coming," etc. More than one takes shots at bloggers. There's the one above, and then there's the EIC who ended up axing me** stating that when they arrived Fanhouse was nothing more than "a quirky blog."
The theme running through the piece all the way up to Kindred, who titles it "Waiting for the day readers march in and demand an end to the dreck," is journalists bemoaning the fact that their quality isn't recognized as they die by the thousands and Bleacher Report is getting eight-digit funding rounds. Kindred uses the recent press conference in which Jim Boeheim slammed the reporter who asked a question about point-shaving because the internet's been talking about it as a leaping-off point. You'd think they'd know by now.
You Are Bleacher Report
So… the column and those quoted in it are rife with misconceptions that speak to why AOL abandoned ship and why newspapers will slowly bleed readership until internet natives are at the helm in 20 years, at which point they'll just be another voice in the clamor.
Believing Bleacher Report is in the content business. Bleacher Report is not a content company any more than Demand or Associated Media. It is an SEO/marketing company that runs garbage through filters until it comes out with google/newsletter gold. The way they do this is clever, but their success—likely overstated anyway—has nothing to do with the success or failure of people who write for a living.
Believing Fanhouse content was functionally different than Bleacher Report's content. I only subscribed to the college football bit in my RSS reader, but it was a progression of boring AP-style articles, Clay Travis columns, the leftover guys who got in the door under Mottram who were cheap and non-controversial, and Brett McMurphy breaking stories about USF. Meanwhile the larger site had Marriotti.
You know what Mariotti and Travis are? They're trolls. They write controversial things they don't believe for attention. How much of the vaunted 50% non-AOL traffic—the same figure we were told, BTW—was either SEO or people stopping by to tell the various trolls why their stupid arguments were stupid? Mariotti is just a Bleacher Report writer with an editor, and he's the star attraction. This is not hyperbole.
A personal example from my time there: slideshows were pushed ever harder until people started editing posts to stick in random slideshows, hopefully vaguely sexy slideshows, whenever your post could be tangentially connected to one. Slideshows, man.
Fanhouse journalists complaining about how their quality is not appreciated aren't quite right. Anyone who reads above a third grade level can tell there's a vast gulf between it and BR, but when that gulf spans the gap between "offensive to the English language" and "newspaper stuff mostly about things I don't care about" it doesn't matter. Instead of widely loathed you're ignored unless you're breaking news, which is ephemeral.
It's no secret that I hate Deadspin. At least, I hate its bottom 20% and don't care about its middle 70%. But even though I don't read it much I still remember a dozen things—great things—it's published in the past year. If there's anyone who understands making it in internet media it's Nick Denton, and he's decided on lots of dongs and lots of outstanding, smart, highbrow content that people will post on their Facebook wall. Minus the dongs, I try to do the same thing for my niche. That's quality that separates you from BR, not spelling "lose" correctly.
Believing a site that gathers metrics similar to Bleacher Report is long for this world. You can't out-troll Anonymous.
I'd love to know what Fanhouse's direct hit numbers were. Nobody went to Fanhouse from a bookmark. Fifty percent of this site's hits have no referrer; Fanhouse was probably under 10%. Again, that's Bleacher Report except BR has a legion of halfwits voting and commenting on each other's posts to get more RadPoints*** . And if you're like Bleacher Report except you're paying people—giving people benefits—you lose. How many BR halfwits can you vaguely curate for one Jay Mariotti salary? Thousands, and their content is no different except for the platform. Once that platform enjoys content-sharing deals with, oh, say, the Washington Post, the guy with the benefits is screwed.
Bleacher Report's secret is that it's awesome at being terrible. It hammers that dong demographic. Here I try to be really specifically awesome for a niche. Deadspin has it both ways. Fanhouse was just okay at the dong demo, okay at the boring stuff, and there wasn't one thing in the history of that site anyone would remember two days after they read it. That's the same mistake they always make.
When Mottram left for Yahoo he corrected the mistake he made with Fanhouse by creating a suite of independent single-source blogs that are run by a guy. You can tell because each of them comes with a picture.
Not all posts are by these guys, but they own the blog in a way no one owned Fanhouse. Each is "quirky" to some extent. The soccer one has regular posts in which an obscure Polish goalkeeper rants about corn and his neighbor and the week's events. Doctor Saturday annually embarks on a defense of the recruiting-industrial complex. Each one is a central part of its sports blogosphere, written extraordinarily well by people who may have worked in newspapers but didn't live them. Most of the contributors are just people who write well. They haven't been blown up, and Mottram ascended the ladder at Yahoo to do the same across the company.
I don't know what to do about the fading ability of people to pay responsible news-reporting types. Fanhouse was run by incompetents and destined to implode anyway. But I might miss it if it wasn't so goddamn boring.
*[I imagine him crashing through the window of a conference room holding dozens of high-level executives on a chandelier, sword in hand, rose in teeth.]
**[Not that he should have kept me and my two posts a week output.]
***[mwa ha ha. Seriously, though, points here are for troll control and have only incidentally grown into an e-peen contest.]
Insanely too long, but I fell down the rabbit hole on this one.
There is an annual complaint against the Pairwise when Team X is passed over in favor of considerably less deserving team Y. This is an exercise in pointlessness, but I was curious as to what a tournament that's selected by eyeballing it would look like. Let's pretend I'm the committee and put 16 teams together.
Boston College, North Dakota, Cornell, Michigan, Alabama-Huntsville, and RIT.
Denver and Miami have the top two records in the country against the #8 and #14 schedules. Wisconsin and St. Cloud are 3 and 6 in RPI and have top ten records against top ten schedules.
THE EXCESSIVELY LARGE BUBBLE
|TEAM||Record||RPI||TUC||Record Rank||SOS||Conference finish||Conference tourney|
|Bemidji State||23-9-4||0.543||6-2-1||6||34||1st CHA||Third place tie|
|Yale||20-9-3||0.537||4-1-2||8||40||1st ECAC||First round|
|Ferris State||21-13-8||0.533||6-10-3||13T||30||3rd CCHA||Fourth place|
|Minnesota-Duluth||22-17-1||0.533||11-14-5||18||9||4th WCHA||Fifth place|
|UNH||17-13-7||0.533||7-10-6||19||12||1st HE||First round|
|Alaska||18-11-9||0.530||6-7-6||16||26||5th CCHA||Round of eight|
|Michigan State||19-13-6||0.525||8-10-2||17||27||2nd CCHA||Round of eight|
|Colorado College||19-17-3||0.524||8-14-3||25T||7||6th WCHA||First round|
|Union||21-12-6||0.523||2-4-3||11||39||3rd ECAC||Second place|
|Minnesota||18-19-2||0.519||9-17-2||34||2||7th WCHA||First round|
Those are the next ten teams in the RPI, the shiniest record remaining after that, and the team KRACH says should be in the tourney that isn't anywhere near these teams in RPI.
Of the above teams the first one off the board is Northern Michigan. The Wildcats have the best TUC record by far of any team with a significant number of games played, a strong RPI, and the best combination of record and schedule strength. NMU is 7-2-5 against this cohort.
Bemidji State is next with their excellent RPI and 7-5-2 record against a 14-game slate of WCHA and CCHA opponents that included a three-point weekend against Northern, a sweep of UMD, and a win over Miami.
And we will take Yale as a 20-9-3 ECAC champ even if KRACH thinks they are worse than eight WCHA teams.
Now we get down to the tough decisions. Three spots left for eight teams. They come in three sets:
- High RPI: Ferris State, UMD, UNH.
- Low RPI: Vermont, Michigan State, CC, Union, Minnesota
- Straddling: Alaska
Minnesota is mostly included to show how broken KRACH is as a real world selection device. In its world, an under .500 WCHA team that finished seventh in its conference, went 5-3 OOC and has a horrible TUC record would be a three seed. There is an NCAA rule prohibiting teams under .500 from getting at-large bids after Wisconsin pulled that trick off a couple years ago. They're dropped.
Next, we shoot down Michigan State. There are two CCHA teams with big RPI advantages on them. Both have better records against basically equivalent schedules. Taking them would mean taking the other two CCHA teams and having six in the tourney, something that can't be justified given the relative nonconference results.
We also shoot down CC, which didn't do anything in the nonconference or playoffs to disprove the idea it's a below average WCHA team. CC's nonconference consisted of a split against Northeastern, the ninth place team in HE, a win against Cornell, a loss against Maine, and four games against an assortment of AH and CHA teams. KRACH, of course, has them ninth nationally because they're almost .500 in the WCHA.
Union is the next to die with their ugly SOS and nonexistent TUC categories. That's something that can be overlooked when you have a nice RPI, but there's no reason to look at Union's schedule and think they're somehow underrated.
The Real Bubble
|TEAM||Record||RPI||TUC||Record Rank||SOS||Conference finish||Conference tourney|
|Ferris State||21-13-8||0.533||6-10-3||13T||30||3rd CCHA||Fourth place|
|Minnesota-Duluth||22-17-1||0.533||11-14-5||18||9||4th WCHA||Fifth place|
|UNH||17-13-7||0.533||7-10-6||19||12||1st HE||First round|
|Alaska||18-11-9||0.530||6-7-6||16||26||5th CCHA||Round of eight|
The only low RPI team we can't dismiss is Vermont, which went 3-3 in six games against RPI #2 Denver and #4 Boston College. They also beat Yale and UMD in single games and went 2-3-1 against UNH. Their TUC record is the most impressive of any team not already selected. They finished eighth(!) in Hockey East, yes, but they were three points from third. Going 6-1 in the nonconference and beating league champ UNH in the first round of the playoffs means they're worth a look.
Ferris has the best record of any remaining team other than ECAC foe Union but they have an ugly TUC record that's made uglier by the details: four of Ferris's six wins are against UNO, the #21 team according to RPI. The others are wins against Michigan and Michigan State.
New Hampshire… same boat, but they are 3-2-1 against Vermont for whatever that's worth.
Alaska swept Ferris, split a trio with Michigan, and tied three of six against Northern.
UMD is in a similar boat: eight of their eleven TUC wins are against #18 CC (who they played an improbable seven times) and #22 Minnesota. However, Duluth has a better record, RPI, and SOS than UNH and Vermont. They have slightly worse records by a much higher SOS than either of the CCHA teams. Minnesota-Duluth is in.
We have to kill two of these teams. I don't know. Maybe goal differential?
- Ferris State: +0.65
- Alaska: +0.45
- New Hampshire: +0.21
- Vermont: +0.05
That does not help at all. This is why they went with the Pairwise. Okay. You cannot possibly put Vermont in the tournament over UNH when UNH has a better record, RPI, SOS, conference finish, and beat Vermont head to head. And I don't think you can leave out UNH without a good reason when they proved themselves vastly superior to all HE teams not named Boston College. So New Hampshire's in. Then you have three teams.
TEAM A has the best record and RPI but weakest schedule.
TEAM B swept team A but has a meaningfully worse record and a worse league and conference finish.
TEAM C beat more really good teams than the other two but lost to more bad teams and finished in eighth place in its conference.
I… I guess I'm going with Ferris State and validating all the complaints. But it's not like this is obvious.
Working backwards since those should be the easiest:
Small conference autobids for teams with bad metrics.
14. Ferris State
13. New Hampshire
Last three in.
Michigan gets ahead of UMD and Ferris by virtue of common opponents. The other metrics are so close as to be nearly indistinguishable, but Michigan has a major edge in COP against a conference opponent in Ferris and a 10-2 to 8-6 advantage against UMD. The comparison with UNH is basically a push in all categories, so Michigan gets the edge for the strong late-season run.
9. Bemidji State
I guess this is where strong records against weak competition go.
8. Northern Michigan
Clearly the best of the bubble-ish teams.
6. St. Cloud State
They've separated themselves from the below; it's a coinflip as to which is 6 and which is 7.
5. Boston College
4. North Dakota
Three teams for two one-seeds. Wisconsin has a major edge in comparisons against BC; North Dakota narrowly loses TUC but actually has a much more impressive record since they played 15 games against RPI top ten opponents (and another five against #12) to BC's one. The COP category is BC's mostly because North Dakota went 1-4 against Denver. Since RPI is basically equivalent, I give the nod to North Dakota's SOS.
These are the obvious top two teams in the tournament. Picking between them is not a big deal since the last two teams are by far the least impressive and both should go meekly. Miami does have all three points in the PWR comparison so we'll go with them.
That sets us up with one intra-conference matchup in the first round: Cornell versus Yale. We'll swap Yale and BSU.
1. Miami vs 16. UAH
8. Northern Michigan vs 9. Yale
2. Denver vs. 15. RIT
7. Cornell vs. 10. Bemidji State
3. Wisconsin vs. 14 Ferris State
6. St. Cloud State vs. 11. Michigan
4. North Dakota vs 13. UNH
5. Boston College vs. 12. Minnesota-Duluth
Attendance will be shaky in Fort Wayne, but there's no way to swap Michigan in since Northern is holding down the 8 seed unless you want to swap the entire matchup. If Northern and St. Cloud had comparable metrics, I'd do it but there's a big enough gap that the bracket integrity is more important.
Minnesota-Duluth probably should have been in easily, but was left out in favor of Vermont. If you put a gun to my head, I'd say Ferris is more deserving than Alaska. Apparently, in my Northern is slightly underseeded; other than that it's not much different, at least not this year.
If I was the king of college hockey I'd have the committee hand select the last couple at large bids but then use the Pairwise for seeding.
College football has either concluded its regular season or concluded its bowl season or announced matchups or failed to exist for eight months out of the year so it's time for another go-around about whether a playoff is a good idea or not. There are a thousand arguments too dumb to warrant a response—see the head of the BCS's post defending the system he's paid to defend. "Every game counts," he says, which is true as long as you're not Boise State or Cincinnati or TCU or Auburn in 2004 or LSU a couple years ago or… you get the idea.
Those advanced by Joe Posnanski are not among them, however. one playoff proponent's answers to a third party's skepticism follow.
Many of these answers are rehashes of the my previous thoughts on the matter, but that post is aged and I've learned that most of the people reading are relatively new. Forgive me, old-timers.
The Primary Challenge
So, I’ll open up this forum to you, the brilliant readers. But this is no place for screeching. This is your challenge: Tell me WHY there should be a playoff. I don’t want to hear why the current system fails. I don’t want to see your brackets — we have become a bracket nation, everyone can do brackets.
Let's go back to first principles. What is the point of a playoff? Most soccer leagues across the globe play a balanced schedule and eschew the playoffs entirely. The season determines the champion. To them, the American way of doing things is stupid. And when you've set up your league such that everyone plays everyone else home and away, it is. Around here, however, there are very big leagues where balanced schedules are impossible and at the end of the regular season you're not quite sure who the best team is. So it makes sense to have the teams that you think might be the best team play each other.
And then there is "off."
Playoffs are assets when both of the following criteria are met:
- The regular season is insufficient to determine a best team.
- The winner of the playoff can reasonably claim to be the best team.
If you don't have #1, then the only thing you can do with a playoff is hand the trophy to the wrong team. If you don't have #2, your playoff is too large and can be counterproductive.
The problem is that how well your league meets these criteria changes every year. Sometimes the top 12 teams in the NFL are all relatively even. Sometimes you could skip right to a conference championship game or a Super Bowl. You can either have your championship structure oscillate wildly on a year-to-year basis or live with some years where your structure is a little broken.
Sometimes playoffs are lame, like when the Cardinals on the World Series or any number of years when one particular NBA team was obviously dominant. Other times—almost every NFL season, literally every college basketball season—a playoff is the only reasonable way to distinguish between a set of nearly identical teams. Every playoff will have hits and misses. The important thing is to maximize the hits and minmize the misses.
Baseball misses a lot. It's a statistical fact borne out by (relatively) recent history that throwing eight baseball teams in a playoff blender is tantamount to playing plinko with your championship trophy. Elsewhere, an under .500 MLS team won it all* this year. On the other hand, March Madness almost never misses. Might not ever, actually. That's why there was outcry when baseball added teams. It was a dumb money-grab that compromised #2. And that's why there was an outcry when the NCAA floated expanding the basketball tournament.
Here's the thing about college football: #1 above is almost always true. There has been one season in the history of the BCS in which it was not (2005). It is more true than it is for any other American sport. Teams play twelve games, eight or nine of which are against an tiny interlocked subsection of of available teams. Two or three are against I-AA teams or total tomato cans. Maybe one or two are games between conferences. By the end of the year you have a variety of teams with virtually no common opponents, wildly varying (and largely unknown) strengths of schedule, and identical, or close to identical, records.
You have a good idea who the best teams in each conference are, but you have almost no idea how the conferences are relative to each other. Before the bowl games, the Big Ten played this many games against the SEC: zero. They played one against the ACC (Virginia housed Indiana). They played four against the Big East, three of which were against Syracuse, two against the Big 12, and four against the Pac-10. Intersectional information hardly exists. As a result, half the time you pick a BCS title game it's an ugly, uncompetitive blowout. This is because college football is the sport with the least information and smallest playoff field.
As far as #2 goes, the short season, large number of available teams, and numerous cupcakes work in favor of a playoff. It would be impossible for a 9-7 Arizona Cardinals team to get to a championship game. The equivalent of Real Salt Lake—this year's sub-.500 MLS champs—or your 80-some-win world champion St. Louis Cardinals would be in a December bowl game. No matter how you construct a playoff field for college football, the winner of that playoff will be coming off of three (or possibly four) consecutive wins against elite competition. The rest of that elite competition will have lost. In college football, the winner of the playoff has the best resume by default.
College football meets criteria #1 over 90% of the time and criteria 2 100% of the time. That's why a playoff is a good idea.
*(Sort of. MLS does award a regular-season trophy that may be more important to soccer fans than the President's Trophy—more of a laughable curse than something to achieve—is to hockey fans.)
Questions du Posnanski
Joe has a lot of logistical issues to be worked out. Let's do so:
1. Are you willing to tell unpaid college football players they now have to play an extra three or four games for free and for our amusement? Are you willing to tell NFL prospects that for the same price of education they have to put their knees and brains and shoulders at greater risk so that we can feel better about our champion? Or will some of the money go to the players? And are you willing to get into that mess?
Yes, I am willing to get into the mess of paying players, whether it's directly or (far more likely) by providing post-eligibility scholarships so more of them can actually get useful degrees once the dream of playing pro ball has passed.
For what it's worth, when ESPN surveyed 85 players in August, 75% of them wanted a playoff. Most of them look at it as an opportunity, not a burden, I'm guessing.
2. Would a playoff more definitively give us the best team in the country? Has the wildcard given us more legitimate World Series and Super Bowl champions?
This was discussed above, and the answer is yes. College football's structure means that every champion of a hypothetical playoff is satisfying. Especially if it has home games and byes, as my pet plan does.
3. Montana is one of the true powers in Division I-AA (I guess they call it the Football Subdivision now or something). Missoula has one of the great football experiences — the Grizzlies sold out every game during the season. Every one. OK, so Montana went to the Division I-AA championship game — which meant Montana had three home playoff games.
Not one of those playoff games sold out. Not one.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Montana was the only school to draw more than 13,000 people to a playoff game. The Villanova-William & Mary semifinal drew 4,171 people (in a 12,500 seat stadium). So, you tell me: Why do you believe that a college football playoff would draw big crowds? I mean, it might the first year, and the second, and for a while after that. But after the novelty wears off, what makes you think that people at Alabama and Florida and Texas and USC and Ohio State and Penn State and all these places have the money and time and interest in going to two or three more games every year.
And those people who think these games should be played at neutral sites — how many people do you think are going to travel to THOSE games?
No offense, but that's like trying to argue against the NBA playoffs because the D-league doesn't sell out. A home playoff game in college football would be an incredibly tough ticket. I'm with him that multiple neutral site matchups are a bad idea, but just because bad playoff systems exist does not mean they have to be adopted.
(I'm pretty sure on review that Joe will find this objection silly, right?)
4. Who would a playoff be for? The college presidents absolutely do not want it. You might disagree with them, but they don’t have any interest in making the seasons even longer and more demanding and more disruptive for their students. The athletic directors and coaches are split — some probably want it for more money or potential glory, but I would bet that most are against it because it just adds strain and pressure to the must-win atmosphere. How about the players? You think they want to make their seasons longer and more demanding? Plus, from what I can tell, those guys LIKE the bowls. They get to spend a week in place, get treated like kings. Why not?
So it would be for the fans. But what fans? Most school-specific fans in college football probably like it just the way it is. Iowa State fans seem to enjoy going to their bowl game every year. A playoff would not affect them … unless the playoff eliminated bowls like it could. That’s how it would be almost every year for 80 or 90 of the 120 or so schools. So it seems to me it would be more for the GENERAL college football fan who likes to watch games on TV. Is that who this is all for?
As noted above, the players want a playoff. And a playoff would no more end the bowl system than the NCAA tournament ended the NIT. Iowa State fans could enjoy their Insight Bowl all the same.
Take it from a guy who spends much of his life reading and reacting to hard-core school specific (how many college football fans aren't school specific? 5%?) college football fans: almost all of them hate the BCS. Pick a number, any number: 90% "disapprove" of the thing, or 63 percent hate and 26 percent support it. Literally every survey that's ever asked about the BCS has come back with huge negative numbers no matter the questioned population.
5. College football is more popular now than it has ever been. There are big games throughout the season — huge, playoff-atmosphere type games. People point to March Madness as a reason for football to go to a playoff, and March Madness is special. But it is also true that the college basketball season is pretty close to meaningless. Texas played North Carolina earlier this year in what seemed like a BIG GAME. But it meant nothing, and nobody cared, and Texas and North Carolina will both be in the tournament with high seeds so … big deal.
I’m not suggesting, as some do, that a playoff would make Ohio State coaches rest players against Michigan like they do in the NFL. But it certainly could make Ohio State-Michigan mean a lot less … and also Georgia-Auburn, Alabama-Tennessee, Penn State-Iowa, USC-Notre Dame, Texas-Oklahoma, Kansas-Missouri, Mississippi-Mississippi State, Washington-UCLA, Kansas State-Nebraska and on and on and on and on and on. Is that worth the price of a playoff?
First: football is more popular now than it's ever been. The NFL grows every year as fast or faster than college football. Playoff or no, it's football that's surging.
Second: This is a completely subjective argument that's hard to refute because of that. But let me just say that the idea that a college football playoff would have any impact on the Egg Bowl or most of the other games on that list is preposterous. Meanwhile, saying Texas and North Carolina "meant nothing and nobody cared" is over the top. It drew 3 million viewers.
The primary thing that makes college football so intense is its scarcity. College basketball teams play three times as many games. Every other sport except the NFL more than doubles those numbers, and even NFL teams get two cracks a year at their division rivals. In college football you play once per year, or less frequently than that, even, and as a result serious college football fans can tell you all about the high and low points of any particular series off the top of their heads. I can say "Mario Manningham" and cause hundreds of Penn State fans to spontaneously throw up. That scarcity is the thing that drives the feelings of horror and joy in the big rivalry games, not some crazy aspiration to make the BCS title game. Exactly two of the games above had any impact on that game. In fact, wouldn't the Michigan-Ohio State game meant more if Ohio State was still battling for a shot in a playoff game?
It's inescapable that a playoff would reduce the intensity of certain games, like this year's SEC championship game. But what it takes away it also provides by giving a dozen more teams aspirations at the end of the season. And a properly constructed playoff with byes and home games could inject much of the lost drama back into the games between teams assured of making the tournament. If Alabama and Florida were playing to avoid a first-round game in Columbus, that would be a prize (other than, you know, the conference championship) worth fighting for.
6. How many teams would a playoff need to be “fair.” I know it’s easy to say that if you take 16 teams, who cares about the 17th? But does anyone really believe that the 16th best team in the country — this year, that would be 8-5 Oregon State — deserves to play for the national title?
OK, so you make it eight teams. Well, there are 11 conferences and Notre Dame so now you are leaving out conference champs which I thought was the point, to give everyone a chance.
So, you make it four teams — a little three game tournament at the end of the year. That’s OK — like a plus-one game — but there were five undefeated teams this year, and a Florida team that we now know was about about 12 touchdowns better than one of those undefeated teams. How do you fairly choose? And, larger point, how does this add more legitimacy to the system than just taking the two who seem to have had the best season?
The perfect is the enemy of the good. As discussed above, unless you want to change your playoff system every year it cannot be utterly fair. The real question is "can we construct a system that is more fair than the current one?" Since a tougher question is "can you manage to construct a more ridiculous system?" I submit that a playoff is probably a good idea.
I don't think the #16 team in the country deserves to be in a playoff but I also don't think that managing to construct a playoff that is a bad idea means that all playoffs are bad ideas. The point is not to "give everyone a chance." It's to construct a fairer, more satisfying system. I'm fine leaving Troy and Central Michigan and Oregon and Ohio State out.
You fairly choose by picking the teams that have assembled the most impressive resumes to date—the ones who "seem to have had the best season," as suggested. This adds more legitimacy to the season by making the winner of the playoff play a selection of elite competition that includes, say, a 13-0 team that shut out the Pac-10 champ and a 12-0 team that had more wins over top 20 teams than Texas.
No system can be perfectly fair. But even generic eight-team playoffs are self-evidently more fair and satisfying than the current mess.
Here is where the recap of my ideal system goes:
A six team playoff with no automatic bids chosen by a committee similar to the March Madness committee. Byes for the top two. Home games in the first two rounds, with the first round a week after the conference championship games and the second on or slightly after January 1st. The final is at the Rose Bowl a week later.
The byes and home games simultaneously make the regular season more important—finishing 1 or 2 is a major leg up—and give the teams at the back end more legitimate should they win since they slogged through extra opponents and road games. The number of teams includes all legitimate claimaints to #1 without allowing mediocrities like this year's Oregon State in. Leaving out autobids sidesteps uncomfortable questions about Notre Dame and the Sun Belt.
If anyone can give a single reason that would be worse than what we've got now, I'm listening.
Apparently, this was the worst showing by U-M in the draft since 1994 when Derrick Alexander was the program's only player selected that year. People are using this as further evidence that the cupboard was bare when Rich Rod arrived on campus (as if anyone paying attention needed more evidence). But one draft doesn’t tell you much about the talent level of a particular team. For example, that 1993/94 team still finished 7-4 and 23rd in the Coaches’/AP. Why? Well, because that team also had three players who would be selected in the first round of the 1995 draft, and five players overall. If we want to know how bare the cupboard was when Rich Rod arrived, we also have to look at the 2010 draft. So, of the current players eligible for the draft next year, who other than Graham is likely to get drafted? What’s the fewest number of players drafted from a major program over a two-year period? Does this tell us anything about Rich’s cupboard that we didn’t already know? Obviously, it was bare but was it far worse than people realize compared with other major programs?
Yikes. A quick combing of Michigan's roster comes up with the following potential 2010 draftees outside of Graham:
- Greg Mathews: maybe a late pick? He doesn't have the speed to go very high.
- Minor/Brown: it's too early to tell with either but both have the raw physical ability to be drafted somewhere decent. One seems like a first day pick with the other going later.
- Ortmann/Moosman: probably not drafted.
- Stevie Brown: Lions first rounder.
- Zoltan The Inconceivable: likely to be the first punter off the board, whenever that happens.
So, yeah, it's Brandon Graham, a couple running backs, and the space punter. I don't know what the fewest number of players drafted from a power program over a two-year period is, but that's probably not the right question. The right question is "how many teams with like one high NFL draft pick and three or four mid-round picks are any good?" and the answer is "none, but there are plenty that didn't go 3-9."
This following one concerns variance, as discussed in the earlier post on Gladwell and basketball and Carr and the non-scoring offense. It's long, so I've chosen to respond after each paragraph. Though this looks fisk-y, it's not intended to be confrontational.
Your recent blog entry, detailing variance, risk versus reward, defense, offense and modern versus older systems, beginning with a basketball analogy, seems correct, but I have some issues. Your presumption seems to be that solid defense allows for a brute strength, low variance offensive strategy, in the style of Bo, and likewise with Carr. At the same time, however, you insinuate that a slow, grinding offense that keeps the other teams’ offenses off the field is of a critical nature towards that end.
I was not entirely clear about my thinking here. I do think that a really, really good defense allows for that sort of offensive strategy, and more specifically makes the run-run-probably-run-punt style of closing up a game make sense. In that sort of situation you're playing towards your strength.
However, when your defense is mediocre and you have a future NFL player at quarterback, shutting up shop and hoping your mediocre defense comes through is playing to your weakness. Carr did this a lot, if we're expansive about the word "mediocre".
As far as what sort of offense you want at the end of the game, yes, the sort of offense that can grind out a first down is nice to have, but if you don't have that offense—and not many do when they opposition is selling out like mad—you're doing yourself a disservice. There are specific situations where grinding it and punting makes sense, but none of them come with more than two minutes on the clock.
This is reasonable, as you can’t rely on a small lead and a low scoring game if you can’t keep the other team from scoring. The problem, however, comes in making the assumption that defense can’t be, or at least wasn’t, considered a weapon. Absolutely, using a prevent defense, clogging the running lanes, and keeping opposing offenses to short, clock eating runs between the tackles works towards that end. But what of the Michigan defenses through the years, especially in the early Carr era, that actually produced more variance, not less? Sacks, fumbles, and interceptions all increase variance in a game. Sudden turn-overs and backward yards are not supposed to happen on an offensive possession. I would say that in as much as a thundering, slow moving, ground based offense is designed to reduce variance, keep games simple and allow dominant talent to win out; the same strategy of good fundamentals (tackling, stripping the ball, pass coverage) has the exact opposite effect, creating lots of variance and unexpected.
Your definition of "good fundamentals" on defense varies from mine. When I think of good fundamentals, I think of a two-deep shell, minimal blitzing, and conservative strategies. Bend but don't break sort of things. A defense heavy on the blitzing and light on deep safeties is more prone to wild swings. And many of the things you cite as good fundamentals are zero-cost activities from a strategic standpoint: tackling, forcing fumbles, etc.
It seems that you’re positing that the more an offense scores, the more variable and therefore less predictable a game becomes. I think that’s the exact opposite of the truth. Offenses are supposed to score. To assume they will do ANYTHING but that is fallacy. I think the variance comes in when they fail to. Therefore, I don’t think that Bo’s and Lloyd’s game plans were low variance at all. I believe they simply tried to keep the variance, the sudden swinging changes, to one side of the ball. After all, if your defense FAILS to produce variance, the worst that will happen is the other team will score. That can be recovered. If your offense does produce variance, then the worst that will happen is you will lose your chance to score back. You can’t get that back.
This wasn't what I was getting at, but it wasn't the opposite of it either. What I was trying to say was this: all other things being equal, I'd rather Michigan play a game where both teams have sixteen possessions than eight. (Assuming that they don't suck, of course.) Michigan's more likely to come out on top in that situation. The way Michigan played under Lloyd, however, seems like it lent itself to a lot of long drives on both sides of the ball and generally depressed the number of possessions.
Simplified – You’re saying that offenses produce variance by moving quickly, scoring. As talent entropy occurs, this is harder and harder to stop, and so Bo and Lloyd saw their wins weaken, because their goals were to reduce variance. I believe that defenses produce variance by preventing scoring, and scoring on defense. We saw less success against higher level and middling teams in the last few years because talent entropy, and the coinciding spread of more complex, harder to stop offenses, has leveled the playing field, reducing defensive variance.
Different song, same title.
Okay, to properly address this we need to bring in variance's buddy: expectation. In layman's terms, expectation is the average of all expected outcomes. When you roll a die the expectation is 3.5. When you kick an extra point the expectation is 0.98. Variance is a measure of the average difference between trials. I could kick up the variance of the dice roll by turning 1 into –101 and 6 into 106 without affecting the expectation. I could kick it down by weighting it so that 3 and 4 came up twice as often as other rolls.
If you expect to win a game, variance is your enemy. I'm going to borrow some graphs from the excellent Advanced NFL Stats to demonstrate:
So here we've got two teams with the same variance in their play, one of which is a touchdown favorite. The underdog has about a 31% chance of winning.
Now the underdog has gone mad, probably going for it on fourth down a lot, inventing and deploying something called HELICOPTER PUNTING, and trying to block every extra point. They get blown out a lot more but also win more: 35% of the time.
This effect is powerful enough to overcome reductions in expectation:
But this time the underdog’s average is reduced from 17 to 16. The increase in variance still results in a slightly better chance of winning despite its overall reduction in average points scored. In this case, it's 33.2% for the underdog.
And it's the same for the favorite and reducing their variance: sometimes it's worth reducing expectation to get it, but only in certain situations and when you're a considerable favorite. In Bo's time, Michigan was a considerable favorite much more often and the game lent itself to low-variance moves: a 40-yard punt is much more valuable in an era when ten points is a potentially game-winning number.
Anyway, to the assertion above: modern offenses have more variance to them* because they score more. Don't lose sight of expectation here: Missouri had a lot of variance in their scores but that was because they averaged 42 points a game. Michigan had far less but they were averaging 20.
Offenses that do this quickly are actually more predictable because they get in more trials. Moving fast without sacrificing expectation is advantageous to the better team, which is why Oklahoma was in zero even halfway close games against the Big 12 rabble. (Texas is not rabble, obviously.)
Defenses reduce variance by, you know, having safeties that can tackle. The very best defenses are low variance because all of the outcomes have the same result for the opposition: shame and humiliation. In that situation, punting your ass off makes sense, because you're a big favorite, you're not giving the opponent much of an opportunity and you're reducing variance in a way that helps your overall chances of winning. The main problem with Michigan's defense over the last few years has been their suckiness, which by the way increases variance as your defense falls to a point where opponents can drive the field on them regularly.
I always go back here to the end of the 2005 Ohio State game: Michigan has a two point lead and drives down to the Ohio State 40. Facing third and ten, they run a wide receiver screen for six yards, and then punt on fourth and four from the 34, gaining 15 yards. Ohio State promptly drives the field for the winning touchdown. This came after a Henne-demanded fourth-and-short conversion on Michigan's 40 that led to an apparently-clinching field goal, and was interpreted by yrs truly as a panicked reversion to base instincts from another time.
*(The variance of something that's always zero is zero and it's not much higher for something that's almost always zero. As offenses move towards 50/50 efficiency the variance increases, but in a world like the 54-51 game against Northwestern the variance is low because everyone's always scoring touchdowns. An even distribution of probabilities is always more unpredictable than a set where most of the events are drawn to one or two outcomes.)