The second annual exploration of how very wrong I was about everything at the beginning of the season.
I didn't get around to Indiana or Minnesota previews, continuing a tradition started in 2005 when I decided not to bother projecting Illinois' fate. That worked out just fine. This year, not so much. Both Minnesota and Indiana were worth mentioning. Indiana was 5-7, a loss to I-AA Southern Illinois the only thing standing between them and a Motor City Bowl berth. Minnesota scraped its way to 6-6. Both beat Iowa, a team that
- I projected to win the Big Ten
- I ranked #2 -- in the country -- in the preseason
- failed utterly in every way imaginable and is about to get rolled by Texas.
So maybe they deserved some notice.
The Scoffed At
General tenor of the thing: Won't be as hilariously awful as last year, but certainly won't be good or anything. In sum:
Strides towards competency are probable, but there's a long, long way from last year's Travelling Bye Week extravaganza and respectability.
Interesting miscellaneous error:
The Ron Zook era started out well enough with a thrilling overtime victory over Rutgers, but whenever the phrases "thrilling overtime victory" and "over Rutgers" find themselves in the same sentence their buddy "harsh reality check" cannot be far behind.
We'll get a test of this particular theory when West Virginia takes on Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl but as a general sportswriting device, "mock Rutgers" is real passe all of a sudden.
Yesssss. Last year's edition of this featured progressively worse and worse predictions about the quarterbacks of the league. The overall impression left by it was the only way I would ever get anything right about the most important position in the game was by flipping out a la George Costanza and going against every instinct I had. Well...
If things go poorly with Brasic, Zook might say "to hell with it" and insert true freshman Isiah Williams, the jewel of this year's recruiting class. Williams' implausible senior-year stats: 1,441 rushing yards at 21.8 yards per carry and 1,841 passing yards on only 128 attempts with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions. He's guru-approved and potentially the kind of guy who can lift the downtrodden into a state slightly less so a la Antwaan Randle-El. One caution: Williams only completed 56% of his passes as a senior, but it's not like Zook's going to have anything to lose after September.
HA! HA HA HA! Brasic did get yanked, Williams did get inserted -- though he was universally referred to as "Juice" -- and he did run around like Antwaan Randle-El a lot while completing very few passes. Staggeringly few, actually: around 40%. The last quarterback to start most of a season in the Big Ten and come out with a completion percentage that low must have been decades ago.
Nooooo. I was wrong, wrong, wrong about the defense:
[Defensive Line] I don't care that three of four starters return; the assumption here until proven otherwise is that the Illinois defense will be a mere rumor to opposing offenses. Defensive tackle Chris Norwood's 7.5 TFLs are nice, but that's about it as far as playmaking goes. The true sophomore defensive ends were awful a year ago and will probably be slightly less awful this year, but I'm saving all my miracle points for "Lloyd Carr understands probability"; "Illinois defensive line is half-decent" will have to wait. ... [Linebackers] See defensive line; I don't care that three starters return. This is what you need to know about the Illinois linebackers: one of them claims to be named "J Leman." No word on whether he plans on fleeing to
MyanmarBurma. [Defensive Backs] Detroit DePorres' own Sharriff Abdullah is the top returning corner; he is 5'8" and has zero interceptions and four breakups in about two full years of starting. This neatly summarizes the experience of being an Illinois cornerback: it's nasty, brutish, and you're short.
Later I reiterated my dismissiveness:
We're Sure About
The defense. The scoreboard operators at Illinois games are going to get a nasty case of George Jetson button-pushin' finger.
Moral of this story: always be wary of teams starting scads of underclassmen and returning them. J Leman, Redneck Linebacker, became a bonafide playmaker and the Illinois defense ended up thoroughly respectable at the end of the year: 38th in total defense, 32nd in pass efficiency defense, 51st in rushing defense. A big ugly 90th in scoring defense can be attributed to the short fields Illinois gave up frequently; they were 117th in both net punting and turnover margin.
Final Verdict on the Final Verdict. Official prediction of 3-9, "but an encouraging 3-9." It was 2-10, actually, but an encouraging 2-10. Overall: accurate.
General tenor of the thing: It's going to be ugly; no one will mind.
Football will continue in Evanston after Randy Walker's shocking midsummer death but wins and losses will be beside the point. That's probably a good thing for Pat Fitzgerald, thrust into the head coach spotlight at only 31 without four-year starter Brett Basanez or much hope on the other side of the ball.
Hurray for turnover theory: One consistently useful metric is finding teams at the extremes of turnover margin and projecting that turnover margin to head meanward. (This is bad news for us. We finished third this year, though one of the caveats in the theory has always been "senior quarterback." "Running back who never fumbles" is also a good one, too, so we should be relatively safe. Not so safe: Minnesota, #1 in turnover margin and losing Brian Cupito. Bottom could drop out on the Gophers next year.) Northwestern provided a perfect capsule of it in action this year:
The outlook is grim, especially when you consider Northwestern's outlying turnover ratio: they were +9 despite having a terrible defense because said defense managed 30 takeaways, including 20 interceptions. That is well into the land of flukes. With a mewling babe replacing ancient Brett Basanez, Northwestern's turnovers figure to shoot up. Probability and common sense declare that their takeaways will travel in the reverse direction. Presto: likely two-game swing to the bad.
Northwestern went from +9 to -7 and dropped to 4-8.
Continued quarterback bullseyes. Sort of, anyway. Northwestern went into the year with three guys competing for the starting job...
The only thing anyone knows about Northwestern's starting quarterback is that he isn't Brett Basanez. Sophomore CJ Bacher and his six career completions are projected to start, and this concludes the Bacher scouting report. I've scoured the Internets for any information on him and every preview -- every preview -- says "Bacher is in competition with Andrew Brewer and Mike Kafka."
(The next sentence contains what was probably the first "ha, quarterback named Kafka!" joke captured in captivity: "Some venture to guess he will start, probably because Kafka keeps turning into a beetle." Zing, indeed.) ... I bet on Bacher, but claimed that "whoever the starter was" would see the Northwestern offense revert to the spread-option-happy version run by Basanez as an underclassman, when having him throw was inadvisable. Bacher was slowed by a fall injury; Kafka and Brewer split time proving
that they were very bad quarterbacks indeed; Bacher returned to claim the starting job and did it with his arm, not his legs; and youbetcha I'm claiming this as a correct prediction:
If Bacher's arm is as accurate is reputed he'll get the opportunity to toss a lot of short throws to possession receiver Sean Herbert and Sutton, but Northwestern is going to revert from hoping their quarterback wins games to hoping he doesn't lose them.
Impression of the Northwestern offense under Bacher gleaned from the frigid Michigan Stadium benches: screen screen screen punt. Repeat until you lose. (He did improve radically given more time -- see first half versus OSU -- and is a major reason Northwestern should improve significantly a year ago.)
Side effects. On pint-sized dynamo Tyrell Sutton:
without Basanez's arm keeping safeties honest Sutton may find the sledding significantly tougher as a sophomore. If we make the safe assumption that whoever the starting quarterback is can't approach Basanez's efficiency and command of the offense, the only way to keep that eighth man from finding his way into the box will be to establish someone, likely Kim Thompson, as a deep danger. That requires not one but two untested players to step up -- unlikely. All eyes will be on Sutton* in '06.
Sutton's YPC dropped from 5.9 to 5.3; his carries slid down to 189. None of this is necessarily his fault.
Thank you for not defying expectations. Short but sweet on the Northwestern DL: "This is probably going to be the worst defensive line in the conference other than Indiana." 92nd in rushing defense, 110th in TFL, leading sacker had 3.
On the DBs:
Long Northwestern's glaring weakness, it would be folly to expect sudden improvement from this unit but for the first time in a long time there is something resembling a flicker of hope.
Ended the year 71st in defensive pass efficiency, which is almost mediocre and the best number this unit has posted in a while.
Final Verdict on the Final Verdict: I usually have a wide spread for the teams in the worst-case-best-case areas, but with Northwestern it was uncommonly narrow: 5-7 best, 3-9 worst. I projected them 4-8, and that's where they ended up, though I didn't see that New Hampshire loss coming. Also accurate.
Okay, seriously: I addressed this on Friday but did not fully understand the depth of Charles P. Pierce's mania re: Tom Brady getting screwed by Michigan. He's the guy with the book out on how Brady is basically, like, football Jesus, except LOL better. On Friday I knocked him for calling Michigan's coaching "incompetent." Now he's doing this thing at Slate where two guys send letters back and forth and he can't get through one without dropping something about how Tom Brady was basically, like, tortured and stuff by Lloyd Carr. It was like Abu Ghraib.
Article one has a throw-in phrase completely irrelevant to his point:
His entire competitive personaâ€”which he fashioned on his own, without a lot of help, especially at Michiganâ€”is based upon being a vital part of something bigger.
And then this:
And he did that believing, with the fundamental conviction that most great athletes have, that he was a better quarterback than the guys who had the advantages over him, whether that was Drew Henson at Michigan or Drew Bledsoe in New England. That's a difficult feat of locker-room diplomacy, but he managed it well on both occasions, particularly at Michigan, where he really did get a raw deal.
Article two further reminds us that Tom Brady overcame political machinations so staggering they boggle the mind to get anywhere near the NFL:
One of the things that first bound Tom Brady to Belichick was the fact that the latter runs as close to a pure meritocracy as there is in the league. After what Brady went through at Michigan, where his progress as a starting quarterback was consistently retarded by off-field politics that would have embarrassed Machiavelli, that kind of system was exactly what he was looking for.
(Such transparent crap: Brady was drafted by the Patriots. What he was looking for was "a team that wanted to draft him." And the Patriots meritocracy was so pure that the only way Brady got in a game was for someone to explode one of Drew Bledsoe's lungs. This stuff is worthy of deranged message board posters.)
Article three manages to avoid mentioning how Michigan dipped Brady's toes in acid before each game, but only because it mostly discusses contracts and kickers. Brady only shows up in one sentence.
So what do we make of all this? I'm not inclined to read books that only purport to be non-fiction, especially when they're no doubt filled with details of Lloyd Carr's daily meal of breakfast burritos made from the souls of dolphins, but we can observe the overall tone of Pierce's book from a statement his correspondent made in his initial salvo:
Brady's career arc lays waste to the clinical approach that dominates personnel evaluation in our most bureaucratic and CW-driven sport. Your book demonstrates that old sporting tropes like "character" and "perseverance" actually can matterâ€”if the athlete applies them to himself. What surprised me is how much material you found in the short life of a suburban kid whose toughest choice growing up was whether to hit a 3-iron or a 5-wood. This isn't an indictment of your portrait of the athlete as a young man, but I kept waiting for Brady to race into a burning building to rescue a litter of kittens.
Ah. It all becomes clear. To use the terminology of the dead-end sports-scribe, Pierce is a "fanboy," specifically a Tom Brady fanboy. He thinks that Brady's success in the NFL is because of character and perseverance instead of, say, his incredible ability to read defenses and accurate arm. You could read that sentence as "Pierce is dumb about sports," if you're so inclined. And you are. To prop up his idea that Brady's character and perseverance saw him through, he invents tragedy (the "material" referred to in the above quote) in the form of Michigan's "incompetent" coaching. No matter that literally every school in the nation looks up at Michigan's record of putting quarterbacks into the NFL. So he got a "raw deal" at Michigan which somehow explains his low draft status. No matter that in his two years as a starter he racked up approximately 700 attempts to Drew Henson's 150, a portion of those in garbage time. So Brady's progress as a starter was "consistently retarded" at Michigan. No matter that he was All Big-Ten both years and led Michigan to an Orange Bowl victory.
It would appear that the only thing here consistently retarded is Charles P. Pierce for Tom Brady.
(Note that Peter damn King apparently writes completely fictional columns that should not be cited.)
- Well... it's a guess. Florida's struggles are reaching a point as epic as those USC has undergone and the Trojans may be finding their stride. Florida's big wins keep getting devalued -- looks like the SEC is just as crappy as everyone else this year -- while USC's keep rising in value.
- Meanwhile, Arkansas continues to take names and kick ass. Is Darren McFadden impersonating Tim Tebow or vice versa? I don't know. I do know that is one large, agile, fast mofo and Arkansas is riding high. It's hard to believe this is the same team that squeaked by Vandy and Alabama and was stomped by USC -- who I have ranked one spot behind them... hmmm, might have to change that -- but whatever. Houston Nutt's gone from the hot seat to his choice of fine Arkansas livestock.
- Rutgers... that feels about right, right? These Big East games are having the overall effect of shooting the three BE contenders up in my poll, because it's hard to actually watch Steve Slaton and think "oh, it's just the level of competition." Dude is fast no matter who he plays against. Since he is fast, respect for everyone goes up? Or maybe it's just that everyone else keeps losing, especially to Maryland?
- #9 Wisconsin I am deeply uncomfortable with, but they handled their KSU equivalent in Iowa, albeit narrowly, and they didn't lose to the Arizona equivalent (Purdue? Minnesota?).
- I guess I can stop ripping on Texas and Auburn now. And you can clear a place for the Thorpe award on Leon Hall's shelf after the Texas secondary got burnt all toasty for the second time in the past month, this time in a loss.
- Why yes, spots 22-25 are totally unsatisfactory and I considered voting for Southern Mississippi because I like SMQ, Duke because I like Steve Spurrier, Michigan State because I like coaches who slap themselves, and Army just to get off a "ND goes for the Commander-In-Chief's trophy" joke. But I didn't. Because I am mentally strong.
Watched: Michigan-IU, OSU-NW, some of UF-SoCar, very end of Arizona-Cal, Texas-KSU, Iowa-Wisconsin, bits of Purdue-Illinois (feel the Big Ten excitement!!!), Rutgers-UL.
This may hurt my street cred, -- as a youngish former student and Michigan devotee I should by all rights be scrapping for endzone tickets like my late-twenties peers -- but due to familial connections and a line of checks made out to the athletic department unbroken since 1958 I have the rare privilege of being close enough to the tunnel to hear the team emerge for their pregame warmups, since I am also the sort of fan who gets twitchy if not in my seat 45 minutes before kickoff.
I am not close enough to make out every word of the rhythmic chant that accompanies them out of the locker room, but one thing does come through loud and clear, one question and one answer.
And so. Here we are, on the cusp of the biggest football-related event in any of our lives. Good is 11-0. Evil is 11-0. Good is #2. Evil is #1. I am a wordy, analogy-laden person and words and analogies fail. This is like what? Nothing. This can be described how? With some gaping, useless jaw-movements sans audio and a defeated shrug.
There is no possible way to make this game more intimidating or more important. Coming off the disastrous Year of Infinite Pain, Michigan has resurrected itself in astonishing fashion. The waltzed into Notre Dame and delivered a BEAT DOWN of epic proportions. They've dominated every game this year except... uh... Ball State. They're 11-0, one of the best teams in the country and should be finishing up their season against some team they're favored against. But this is not so. Fate has conspired to place the only team in the country ranked higher than them as the last obstacle. It has also conspired to place it in Evil's stadium at a time when -- whether it's just luck over a small sample size or actual "owning" -- Good is 1-4 versus Evil in their last five matchups.
In short: that's no moon. It is a veritable Death Star of a game, implausible Jerry Bruckheimer style. The last step is less a step and more a sheer cliff, but no matter
Let's get it on.
Respect and love.
Awards and stuff: Woodley is a finalist for the Lombardi along with Justin Blalock, Quinn Pitcock, and Paul Posluzny (the Lombardi is sort of a stupid award that's open to linemen from either side of the ball and, for some reason, linebackers.) Chances he wins seems sort of good. Posluszny is saddled with a crappy team and neither Blalock or Pitcock plays a sexy position like DE or tackle. Relatively sexy, anyway. Work with me.
Leon Hall is a semifinalst for the Thorpe. At first glance he seems a shoo-in for finalist status along with Texas' Aaron Ross and Bad Reggie Nelson of Florida, though if the voters are really stupid people who only read fawning media profiles and low-level boxing recaps they may jam in Tom Zbikowski's name for no reason.
Irritatingly, David Harris was passed over for Butkus finalist status in favor of James Laurinitis, Posluszny, and Patrick Willis of Ole Miss. Henne is a semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien but won't win it (nor should he).
It will not die. The MZone points out that this new book on Tom Brady contains this little snippet:
This is the journey Tom Brady has taken on. It began in a family wherein the spirit and documents of the Second Vatican Council mean as much to his development as any playbook. It moved along to college, where the whims of incompetent coaching nearly brought it to an end.
Note that that "incompetent coaching" did these things in the four years Brady was at Michigan:
- Won two BCS bowls.
- Turned Brian Griese from a preferred-walk-on to a third round pick and multi-year NFL starter.
- Won a national championship.
- Got Tom Brady into the NFL.
Pierce's book is a hagiography, as everything written about Brady is, that must blame someone other than Brady for the fact that he didn't enter the NFL on a golden palanquin held aloft by seraphim. Somehow the fact that Drew Henson was around and seeing the occasional series has balooned into a fictional alternate reality where he was relegated to the bench (Brady started all 25 of Michigan's games in '98 and '99), wasn't allowed to throw even when he got in (Brady set a Michigan record for attempts, though John Navarre would later break it), and that Charlie Weis is responsible for turning Brady from a sixth round pick into Football Jesus (Brady was an outstanding, clutch quarterback for his entire term as Michigan's starter; also, Charlie Weis is fat).
Kapsner, a backup quarterback during his four years with the Wolverines, said the Michigan coaches essentially ignored Brady in 1996 and '97. In 1998, Drew Henson, as a freshman without taking a snap, moved ahead of Brady, then a junior, on the depth chart.
Hartman combines spin and utter fiction in one tidy sentence. In 1996 and 1997, Brian Griese was an established starter with an NFL future. Brady was a redshirt freshman/sophomore with no on-field experience. There isn't a program in the country that would have played him. In 1998, Henson started zero games. There was something of a competition designed to keep Henson pleased but by the time the season got serious, he was on the bench.
The notion that Tom Brady was a nobody, the Rodney Dangerfield of Michigan quarterbacks, before becoming everyone's fave-rave makes a terrific story. But it's just a story. If you choose to tell it you may as well add in some radioactive biker mice from Mars, because those are pretty cool, too, and just as true to life.
Fantastic FO article on rush distribution in the NFL that I'd love to see applied to college, where there are no doubt differences. Upshot: while the NFL rushing average is 4.1 YPC, a small number of long runs distort that. The most likely outcome for just about any back crossing the LOS is a whopping two yards, which has all sorts of fantastic implications for cursed "ball control" strategies. Of the backs picked out of the pile, our own Mike Hart is more Mike Anderson than anyone else, IMO.
Rod Gilmore is a lawyer. This is hard to believe if you've ever heard him broadcast football -- though admittedly less difficult than imagining erstwhile partner Trevor Matich with a law degree or, indeed, a cerebrum -- or write ESPN columns. Embarrassing error($) not excused by "it's just a blog":
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema's antics in the Penn State game Saturday is evidence of coaches who don't care about players. I couldn't believe what he did.
Pedantry? Perhaps. But I can't stand me some subject-verb disagreement. Also note the trademark Gilmore finger-wagging paternalism and offense-taking at a completely innocuous slight. What is it with wispy-mustached ESPN "talent"?