seconded. thanks brian.
i refuse to even consider this a possibility
Expectation, variance, and Lloyd Carr's fanatical devotion to grinding death football against lower-level opponents have been frequent topics of conversation on this blog since its inception. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's latest piece, you can now find conversations about these concepts anywhere you look, most of them criticizing Gladwell for misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and misanthropy, or at least failing to recognize misanthropy.
The piece is about underdog strategy and cites the full-court press as an underutilized strategy that, like going for it on fourth down, is underutilized because of mass idiocy amongst coaches. Of course, there are plenty of reasons an underdog team might decide against pressing:
And so on and so forth. Gladwell ignores all these drawbacks in favor of the hypothesis that everyone who's ever coached basketball as an underdog and hasn't pressed is an idiot. This is not the Romer paper, which restricted itself to the first quarter to simplify its argument and marshaled indisputable mathematics to make its point. Romer built a case; Gladwell offers up a couple anecdotes, one about some 12-year-old girls coached by an asshat, and spins it into a castle of cotton candy—airy, impressive, and ready to fall over if someone looks at it sideways.
More importantly though, Gladwell is actually right in a sense: the press (in basketball at least), is a pretty decent example of an underdog strategy. He fails to recognize that what makes it as a good underdog strategy is also what likely makes it inappropriate for Goliaths -- it is a high risk, high reward, high variance strategy. One reason it works for underdogs may have little to do with how good it is on absolute terms; the fact that there is increased variance by itself has value for underdogs because it might give the underdog a chance of actually winning. On the flipside, however, while a full-time press strategy might increase a Goliath's chance of blowing out an underdog, it also might result in them losing a game they shouldn't.
From my distant perch it appears Lloyd Carr hated variance almost as much as press conferences. 10-7 against Utah. All those grinding games against supposedly inferior foes that ended up too close for comfort. Fourth and short punts or field goals, or fake field goals that are punts that everyone sees coming. This makes perfect sense given Michigan's background and the philosophical environment Carr was brought up in.
That environment? Well, I just edited an article Dan Feldman wrote for Hail To The Victors 2009 that cited one of the more famous passages in John Bacon's Bo's Lasting Lessons, so it is fresh in my mind. In the aftermath of Michigan's 6-6 1984 season, Bo checks out a coaching clinic where a whiz-bang kid is detailing a sophisticated system and, in a moment of weakness, thinks maybe he's got to change:
“Now I have to admit—since I’m being as honest as I can be here—there was a time when I doubted if fundamentals were still enough to produce top-notch football teams,” Schembechler says in the book. “I even wondered if the game had passed me by.
“I’m thinking, Maybe you’ve got to do all those things to win these days. Maybe our approach at Michigan is just too simple to succeed in the modern era. Boy, that was an awful feeling. But after this guy finishes his slide show, someone in the audience raises his hand and asks, “If your defensive schemes are so great, then why did you team give up 400 yards a game last season?”
That question caught Schembechler’s attention. The high school coach’s answer? “We were just a poor tackling team.” That made everything very easy for Schembechler. “I walked out of that auditorium, and I knew what we were going to do: Get back to the basics! Get back to Michigan football! And I was determined that we were going to do it better than anyone else.”
This may have been brilliant in 1985, and brilliant against the poor, huddled masses that comprised Michigan's opponents at the time, but it's fundamentally a variance-hating strategy that presumes better talent. In it are the seeds of Michigan's time-honored failure against Rose Bowl foes, and its recent struggles to put away inferior competition.
When you choose to reduce variance you are usually giving up expectation, especially in football. See the Romer paper. Coaches choose to punt or kick field goals because they're "less risky"—i.e., have low variance—despite the numbers clearly showing they are also "stupid"—i.e., have low expectation.
But there's a catch. In football, actions that have low variance on the micro level can aggregate into a whole that has high variance. Take Michigan's oft-stated priority to control the clock and "keep the other team's offense off the field." You do this by engaging in a lot of long drives consisting of inside runs and short passes. When you run for three yards on two of three plays, your variance is very low. When you pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad: your variance is high.
HOWEVA, running a lot of clock and having long grinding drives reduces the number of possessions in a game, which jacks the variance up. Smart Football again:
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.
Every second that ticks off the clock between plays is aid and comfort to the underdog. This is where the Gladwell article truly breaks down. Pressing is a dumb strategy for underdogs because it—though high variance in the micro—is not necessarily high variance in the macro. Pressing can increase the number of possessions and thereby give the dominant team more of an opportunity to show that dominance via thunderous open-court dunks. Yes, this makes Gladwell referencing Rick Pitino's loaded, national-title-winning Kentucky team as an exemplar of an underdog wisely using a press ironic in the extreme.
When Bo was coaching the relative skill level of most opponents and the nature of the game at that point—low-sophistication passing, low-scoring—made his strategy a good one. Leading 12-6 in the fourth is an entirely different level of comfort than leading 30-24. Back in the day a turnover that sets up an easy opponent score was way more dangerous than punting one too many times. Bo's tactics were sound for his day, and for certain later days. In 1997 Michigan had a world-crushing defense that turned the tactical clock back to 1972, and Bo's philosophy worked just fine.
In other instances, it did not. Michigan fans were intimately familiar with Carr's late game strategy, which strove for low variance above all when Michigan was ahead: run, run, probably run, punt, play D. This, from an article by Vijay of IBFC in the 2007 edition of HTTV, is how well that worked:
Michigan entered 18 games over that period of time [2000-2005] with a lead smaller than ten points and went 8-10 in those games. They were under .500 when entering the fourth with a small lead! When tied or facing a similarly small deficit, Michigan was 6-1. In all games in which Michigan trailed by any margin they were 8-8. Michigan had a better chance of winning if trailing by any margin entering the fourth than they did if leading slightly.
The way Michigan approached its Goliath strategy was fundamentally broken as the Carr era waned. In the new era of modern football the Goliath strategy is clear: score, score again, score again, and score some more.
Uh… I guess. A couple other points:
Lloyd Carr thought deception and trickery had their place in football, and that place was Northwestern.
The piece holds up pretty well, so if you're confused as to what I'm getting at or want more context I recommend it.
Though Dantonio and Bielema have the most boring offenses in the Big Ten, they'll be fascinating tactically over the next few years. Their clock-killing, suddenly-unusual offenses are excellent underdog systems now, but are terrible ideas for favorites who are unlikely to have killer defenses. I foresee perpetually decent but unthreatening teams for both unless Bielema is just as bad a coach as last year suggests.
Woo for 1600 words at 4PM Friday!
seconded. thanks brian.
The idea that more possessions helps the dominant team is the basic principle behind Roy Williams' "always be running" philosophy at UNC (I believe this is right, I read an interview with him somewhere). He believes that in almost every case, he has a team that is more talented than his opponent, and so the more possessions that his team has to work with, the more likely that his team's talent advantage will win out. So he coaches his team to push the ball down the court on offense to maximize his team's number of possessions.
He compared it to golfing against Tiger Woods. If you play one hole against Tiger, there's a chance you'll get lucky and beat him (maybe he gets something in his eye on his downswing, or hears a camera clicking, or is just uninterested). But as you play more and more holes against him, you're going to lose, because he's just way better than you are, and that will play itself out over time. Something like that.
could it be that Beilein Ball, through its slower pace with fewer possessions per game, is an ideal strategy for an underdog-type team with less overall talent - as opposed to the full court press? like this past year's Wolverines, for example? and does this mean that when Dirk Nowitzki Smotrycz hits campus, adjustments will need to be made to accommodate his incomparable greatness?
Beilein is a tricky guy to analyze. While we employed a somewhat deliberate pace this year, we actually were most successful when we scored 70+ points. Beilein gives his players the green light to shoot early in the clock if the shot's there, and on some nights when the outside shot's falling, we can rack up big point totals. (Case in point: the 87 points we dropped on Purdue, which was by far the most they surrendered all season.) I think our pace under Beilein is going to be more a function of the personnel we have at hand than a clear philosophical decision. If we've got a lineup with five scorers on it (as opposed to having walk-on point guards), I think you may see our tempo increase.
When I saw your title, I thought for sure you were going to discuss Dean Smith and the implementation of the 4-corners offense back in the '60's and '70's when there was no shot clock.
Smith knew that, when going against a superior opponent, if the game was reduced to less than a handful of possessions for each team, the variance was so high that the 'dog had a very good (maybe 1/3 of the time) chance at winning the game.
And to help prove the above point regarding the press, the 4-corners is the absolute antithesis of the press.
(and not to be a douche replying to my own post) for those of you unfamiliar with college basketball before the shot clock.
The for corners was usually implemented in order to run out the clock when leading by single-digits (in double-digits, the team usually ran its normal offense, knowing they could always go to the 4-corners later if the lead was cut down).
But, there were times when a team, greatly over-matched (like when playing 10-time defending champion UCLA), would institute the 4-corners at the outset of the game. As long as the game remained close (or if the underdog was ahead), the underdog would continue running the 4-corners (few possessions, high variance).
This often led to very, very boring games with final scores in the teens. Hence the implementation of the shot clock.
I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition.
That article pissed me off so much that fumed about if for five days, then spent much of last Sunday writing an 800 word letter to the editor of The New Yorker. It's not just that his conclusions are wrong. He also misleads and twists the truth. They should use it at J Schools as an example of what not to do.
that in the Big Ten conference the spread offense has not demonstrated more decisive success in the final results: W's vs. L's.
Northwestern has done some horrific damage since Randy Walker first arrived. But it's not been consistent. The Wildcats have been playing the David role very well. They are 57-64 since 1999 (Walker's first year).
Indiana under Hoeppner/Lynch ran the spread since 2005 Indiana is a David. Their W-L results are not impressive. 19-29 since 2005 (Hoeppner first year).
Purdue has done well with Tiller's pass-centric spread offense. Not a Goliath, but Tiller's teams won games: 87-62 since 1997.
Ohio State and Penn State are two Goliath-profile teams that have run the spread offense and have done exceptionally well in wins and losses and recent conference championships.
If RR can somehow replicate for Michigan the high offensive reps that bring about 460+ yards and 38+ points per game as he did while at WVU in 2006-2007, that would be fascinating.
Your post reinforces Brian's point; A spread offense implies more passes, which implies more possessions, which implies less variance, which hurts the David's and helps the Goliath's (though it does feel a bit dirty calling Purdue a Goliath.)
I don't say this enough: thank you Brian.
Wooo for taking me up to 5:00 on a Friday!
And this is why USC doesn't have nearly enough to show for their efforts. Pro-style = clock kill = decreased margin for error. Oregon State? Stanford? Limit the possessions and they have a chance.
but is their overall record worse than, say Florida's or LSU's over the last 5 years? I think it's as much a case of USC (like the Big Ten) being hurt by the lack of a tournament, while the SEC and B12 get the spotlight for 1-2 more weeks after we're done.
But your point about their pro-style approach is interesting, esp with Stanford. Oregon State has had some talented players, and Erickson and Riley have put together some dangerous teams, so playing them up in Corvallis isn't a gimme. The Stanford loss is the real puzzler since that happened in Los Angeles.
If USC doesn't play for the MNC this year, that will be four years without an MNC game. A team that has recruited like they have, shouldn't go a full recruiting cycle without an appearance in the game, especially in that conference.
2006 - Losses to Oregon St. at home and UCLA 'on the road'. Neither of those teams was very good.
2007 - Losses to Stanford at home and a good Oregon team (spread/shred) on the road.
2008 - Loss to a 9-4 Oregon St. team that got WAXED by PSU. OSU was pretty good, but not great.
So, while it's true that USC record-wise is still very good, I really think that their style of play makes them a little more beatable than they should be. Really good teams almost never beat USC, but there seems to be a game or two every year where they let a team hang with them that shouldn't and they lose. I'd obviously take their last three years over UMs, but I'd speed the game up if I were them and play the odds.
Again, tempo isn't related to scheme. USC could run the exact same offense and extract more snaps per game out of it by going with a faster tempo.
As an example, Oklahoma's 1st TD drive of the game against Florida (BCS title game) was with a no-huddle tempo mainly running the ball out of a twins set.
and RR has from the beginning talked about upping the tempo here, which is music to my ears. Plenty of times I've seen this over the last 40 years: Michigan grinds its way down the field in methodical fashion to the 10-yard line, has the defense totally gassed, with the DLs bending over sucking air. We then take every bit of the clock getting the play in from the sideline and then we slowly amble up to the LOS, and then the play clock runs down to one or two seconds, and then our QB doesn't like something he sees and calls timeout. Which then gives the defense time to recover its breath and its wits, and with the short field we end up settling for a field goal. I'll be interested to see how well we can take true advantage of a defense's distress under RR rather than let it dribble away.
so pretty interesting stuff. i have one comment though about disregarding pressing because it is actually low variance on the macro scale.
in high school basketball there is no shot clock so if an underdog were to press they maximize variance on the micro scale and if they then go into a four corners type/run out the clock offense then they also minimize possessions thereby maximizing variance on the macro scale.
and i also liked rappjasons comment about beilein ball but not sure how to interpret beilein's system into the framework we're discussing. he definitely plays a high variance defense with an emphasis on turnovers but his offense is very patient and methodical which suggests low variance. although u could make the argument that the emphasis on 3s is high variance...
This is a great work. I thought this was one of the most interesting pieces I've read in a while. It definitely explains why I always feel like I'm in heart attack mode when any of my teams is up in the fourth with some time left; I've been trained to think that it is a losing equation.
This is why the spread is good, because it gives you more possesions to score more points.
The tempo of the offense isn't related to the scheme.
Michigan State and Wisconsin COULD go no-huddle and raise their snaps per game. Just because they run more pro set stuff doesn't mean they have to huddle up and grind down the clock.
Both schools were actually ABOVE the national average of 67.5 snaps per game. MSU was at 70 and Wisconsin just a shade below that.
...because I find his prose intolerable. I have no idea why. I've tried many times. So I'm not going to check out the article. But did he make any mention of the 1996 Princeton/UCLA game? UCLA was the defending champ and Princeton was Princeton.
This is great stuff Brian, and you get an extra gold star because it came on a Friday afternoon.
As for Gladwell, as annoyingly simplistic as he is at times, I must admit that he is thought-provoking, not in any profoundly original way, but in a manner that will make you to want to revisit and reanalyze a well-worn topic with more nuance and sophistication.
I think Don is right regarding the Trojans. People seem to have conflated the Stanford loss -- one of the most inexplicable events of our time -- with a few perfectly reasonable defeats in search of a pattern.
USC has lost five games the past three years. Sagarin ratings in parentheses:
--08: at Oregon St. (13)
--07: Stanford (70), at Oregon (8)
--06: at Oregon St. (20), at UCLA (34)
Of course, all of those ratings are boosted by the fact that those teams beat SC. That said, the ratings of the Oregon schools is pretty similar to those of the teams that beat Florida and LSU the past three years.
That leaves Stanford and UCLA. The UCLA game was actually an awful matchup for USC: UCLA had a killer pair of DE's, and USC had an immobile QB. If you recall how that game went, it wouldn't have mattered how many plays the Trojans ran. USC couldn't block those ends, and Booty was helpless.
Which leaves Stanford. An absurd loss, to be sure, but not evidence that SC's tactical approach isn't sound.
I also think people forget how hard it is to win them all in the era of the 12-game season. There have been 5 seasons (02, 03, 06, 07, and 08) with the 12-game regular season. Only Ohio State in 2002 finished undefeated and only 3 BCS teams (Ohio State 02, Miami 02, and Ohio State 06) finished the regular season undefeated. Compare that to the last 5 years with an 11-game regular season (99, 00, 01, 04, and 05). 6 teams were undefeated after the bowl games (Florida State 99, Oklahoma 00, Miami 01, USC 04, Auburn 04, and Texas 05) and another 3 were undefeated before the bowl games (Virginia Tech 99, Oklahoma 04, and USC 05).
Secondly, the Pac-10 has the hardest schedules in the country since they went to the round robin format in the league. In 2006, according to Sagarin, the Pac-10 had 10 of the toughest 15 schedules in the country. Read that again. In 2008, they had 9 of the top 32 (Arizona rated 57th). The TOUGHEST Big Ten schedule last year was Michigan State at 44. USC's loss to Stanford in 2007 is inexplicable, but the rest are them losing to good football teams on the road.
Very interesting post. However, I have a real issue with using math to breakdown play calling.
Football, especially college football, isn't a good sport for the statistical analysis of calling plays. The possible impact of a call not working is much worse than in that bastion of stats - baseball. In baseball, you have 162 games. The consequences of pulling a pitcher to go lefty-lefty in one (or more) game(s) in May is not likley to be a season killer even if it doesn't go well. Further, over that many games, the number of times it works out will outnumber the negatives. Thus, you can be reasonably sure that your record at the end of the year will work out.
In college football, you have 12 games. If you are an elite eam, one or two losses costs you a shot at a title game. If you are not top caliber, and expect to loose 2 or 3 games, one or two extra loses could mean a "bad" (or no) bowl game. Plus, you only have 11 other games to get the beenfit. If the odds tell you that something will work 70% of the time, and the 30% when it doesn't work costs you two games you should have won, you may not have enough other occassions where doing that thing actually turns two expected loses into surprise wins. Thus, you end up with two extra loses, a disappointing season, and a coaching staff cleaning out their offices while trying to explain the stats showing why going for it on fourth down was such damn good idea.
Stats also ignores a whole host of other important situational factors like momentum, injuries, field conditions, etc. I saw a Purdue game were Moeller kicked of to start both halfs. The stats tells you that was crazy - we lost a possesion! However, it was 20 degress and raining ice and no none could move the ball. The entire game was played in thier half and we won by a baseball score. (Yes, I am saying that Moeller had a good idea.)
What we are left with is that play calls have to be made on situations and instincts informed by preparation and knowledge of the game. Stats informs the whole knowledge of the game thing, but is not near as a important as the other situational factors. If the situation in the game shows that you should be able to score at will, go faster. If it doesn't, slow it down. No great statistical analysis is needed. Besides, isn't there someting to be said for going against expectations? No one expected Purdue to pull a fake punt last year, but that worked (damn them) becuase of the situation, the way we were rushing the punter and probably a coach's hunch.
Football is not a computer model that can be understood by crunching numbers. I still liked the post, I just don't agree with the football knowledge through stats thing.
"Stats informs the whole knowledge of the game thing, but is not near as a important as the other situational factors."
I couldn't agree with you less.
The larger point here is that people are making statistical models based on a twelve game season. If someone tried to make conclusions about teams based on 12 games of a baseball season, Baseball Prospectus would slaughter them. The sample size in college football is minute - it's tough to tell.
Per Vijays point that Brian quoted:
It's worth looking at those losses he refers to and see if we can really lay it on offensive play-calling, right?
2000 Purdue, we likely did go into a shell, but our defense also gave up 22 2nd half points. Faults all around?
2000 Northwestern was lost, essentially, on more horrible defense and a Thomas fumble. That's not play-calling.
2001 Washington - Pick six and a blocked field goal in the 4th. Hard to lay that on Lloyd's offensive playcalling.
2001 MSU - Spartan Bob, etc. We still were running out standard O in the 4th (scored a late TD to take the lead).
2002 ND - Navarre through 16 4th quarter passes. It's hard to say we went run-run-run-punt.
2002 OSU - We couldn't move the ball all day. It's hard to blame our 4th quarter ineptitude on play-calling, our O never worked.
2004 ND - Henne Fumble-fest late in the game lost it.
2004 Texas - This is the 2nd one that I'd lay on offensive playcalling. We stopped scoring.
2005 Wisco - Maybe the 3rd? I don't remember this game.
2005 Minny - Henne sucked all day, and a mind-numbing missed tackle at the end. Not play-calling.
2004 OSU - Game #3 we blew for going into a shell.
2005 Nebraska - Again, shell. Ugh. 2005 was awful.
The point is, 4 of these losses we can chalk up to Lloyd's conservative play-calling. So, the stat is a bit misleading.
The '04 loss to OSU really didn't have anything to do with go into a shell offensively, either, imho. That was Troy Smith's coming out party. He torched our defense.
We were also losing 34-14 going into the 4th. No opportunity for a shell there.
They maybe didn't go into a shell but offensively, they failed to make any adjustments. UM rolled down the field on their first two possessions running the ball and using short passes. They were up 14-7. OSU adjusted by doing more blitzes and crowded the line of scrimmage. UM didn't do much of anything offensively until they were down big and had to make adjustments.
The big criticism regarding that game has to do with our possession right before halftime. Navarre was hot in the first half and MSU couldn't cover Walker. Yet, with about 1:30 to go and the ball in decent field position, we killed the clock. Then at halftime, MSU made an adjustment (shading a safety over to Walker's side), and in the second half Navarre threw 2 picks and our offense stalled. We wasted a possession when MSU was on its heels and not in a position to make adjustments.
This game was emblematic of a lot of peoples' frustation with Carr. We didn't take full advantage when we appeared to have the chance to seize control of the game, and then when the 4th quarter happened, weird stuff happened to cost us the game. When you go into the 4th with the score about tied, you're basically counting on individual plays making the difference, and that's a gamble. If you look at the list you compiled, yeah, there was a lot of fluky stuff that cost us games. The question is, was it necessary for all these games to come down to the wire? Did we go for the jugular earlier, when we may have had the chance?
(BTW, I think you were thinking of 2005 OSU, not 2004. '05 was the year we had a 21-12 lead in the fourth, and then, when it was 21-19, we punted on 4th and 4 from the OSU 34.)
2004 ND: I was pissed at the play calling right before half time. UM's up 6-0 and has the ball first and goal around the 8 or 9 yd line. What do they do - run the ball three times and kick a FG. Why not at least attempt one pass to Braylon Edwards?? Edwards stormed off the field after 3rd down visibly upset too. ND holding UM to a FG there was a huge victory for ND.
2002 OSU. Couldn't move the ball all day?? That wasn't the case in the first half. UM had scoring drives of 41, 63 and 88 yds but had to settle for FG's every time. 192 yds of offense and only 9 pts.
double post, sorry.
Gladwell offers up a couple anecdotes . . . and spins it into a castle of cotton candy—airy, impressive, and ready to fall over if someone looks at it sideways.
Bingo. All of Gladwell's writings are like this.
Greetings. What a great article. Just one comment about football and stats. It is stated that the better team wants more snaps to reduce varience. What is forgotton is that this depends on the nature of your football team. Football is unique in that defense and offense are determined by a completely seperate set of players. Thus there are teams with great offenses and crummy defenses, reversed and teams that are great everywhere. Agreed, if I have a very deep team that is complete, I want to increase the snap counts. Works great for USC or Florida. But what are the other 120 odd teams going to do?
Its not obvious whether increasing snap count or descreasing snap count will be advantagous. A lot depends on the style and balance of a team. A lot of high octane offensive teams will tailor a mediocre defense into high risk/high reward. They know that their offense will put up points. If they can generate big defensive plays(sacks, TO's) and build a big lead, they narrow the options of the other teams offense. Thus everything snowballs into a route as the opposing offense plays into the hands of the opportunistic defense. A perfect example was the Bengals of a few years ago. I'm going to use NFL examples only because the spread of talent is narrower. If I have a great defense and a good running game, and I'm up against a great offense/average defense team. I'm going to want to control the clock and dominate time of possesion even if talent is equal.
So in summary it just depends on what your doing with your football team. In the case of Carr, he was old school and followed the boxing mentality of body punch and then knock them out with the gash play. This philosphy still works in the NFL today. Look who won the last couple SB's? The old forumula of no turnovers, possese the ball, great defense will still do well against the most explosive spread.
In my opinion what did Carr in was the decrease in attention to execution. Carr stopped working so hard or became less effective. The talent on his staff was less and I'm going to guess less effort was put into recruiting. There was some bad luck and I know that recruiting is an inexact science. But way too many high profile recruits bombed. If you could put the 50 year old Carr with his staff of ten years ago in 2008, I'm sure that he could replicate what he did in the ninties. When UM stopped executing and stopped doing their recruiting homework, using the low varience method was not so useful as we saw verses APP State.
In summary the best way to win in college football is the old way. Get the best players to play for you and even if you suck at everything else, you will still be pretty good. And if your half decent and motivating and not a total moron at X/O's, you will be a BCS team. Take it one step and get a special player, he will win you a BCS championship. I did not see anything Texas did when they went undefeated and took out USC. Mack Brown did everything possible to screw that game up and they still won.
brian, I see your point about the press tiring out useful players, but please read bill simmons idea in his first section. I think you will find it to be an interesting idea: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/090513/part2
The better teams of Tiller-era Purdue are good examples of Brian's point. Remember how they would destroy teams worse than them, start 5-0 in impressive fashion (seriously, Orton's 2004 Heisman Candidacy?), then be conversely destroyed by teams better than them?