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Thursday, September 17, 2009

An explanation of the Breakdown

The Breakdown is organized in five panes. The first pane offers a basic summary of the performance of the two teams being compared (explanations of the trend-O-meter, Hybrid (2), and cRPI) with national rankings in parentheses. Team ratings and statistical predictions are less reliable before the fifth week of the season.

The second panel provides more detailed information on the team's performance. The unit, pass, and rush ratings are strength-of-schedule adjusted. The bar graphs offer a summary of offensive and defensive match-ups. The portion below zero on each bar is representative of the opposing teams defensive strength in that area. The portion above the bar in the team's color is the predicted yards per run or pass for that team. The gray portion is what the team gains on average. In the title of the graph is percent of plays that the team runs or passes. This information can be used to gauge potential match-up problems. For example, in the case below, USC's relative strength against the run was a match-up advantage for the Trojans-who, then absolutely clobbered Jahvid Best.

Below this panel is a link to another panel with more team statistics.

Pane three is a comparison of the two teams since 1980 (explanations of the Hybrid and cRPI). In this case, the hybrid ratings across seasons are standardized to 1.

Explanation of maps. In the example below, USC is placed relative to Oregon, Eastern Washington, Maryland and Minnesota, Cal's previous opponents. Of those, on offense USC is stylistically most similar to Oregon who score 14 more points that was expected-potentially because Oregon matched up well against the Bears. Because USC is most similar to Oregon (of Cal's previous opponents) and Oregon did exceptionally well, we might expect USC to also have an exceptionally good night-and they did.

Finally, pane 5 summarizes this information to make picks. The Matrix prediction uses performance and match-up data to predict a score and the odds that each team will win. This panel also gives the results of the last six meetings between the teams.

Monday, September 14, 2009

All you need to break down a college football matchup

This week I will be taking my PhD comprehensive exams so I won't be posting, but starting next week I will be using a new layout to provide all the statistical information one might want to break down a matchup. Below is the breakdown of the national championship game. The Matrix gave a slight nod to Oklahoma, and also predicted more scoring than the 38 points we actually saw, but it gave a matchup advantage to Florida. Click each image to see a larger version.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My new theory on the Big 10

I've always opposed the idea that the stature of the Big 10 has fallen because Yankees are slower on average than their southern counterparts. No one has ever provided me evidence to that effect. After Ohio State lost to LSU, I showed that speed was not the issue. Instead, I have argued that the South is benefiting from a growing talent pool (in terms of athletes, students, and donors) while the Midwest is hunting for minnows in a shallow, stagnant, and shrinking pond-its demography, not genetics, weather, or proximity to the Gulf of Mexico.

But Ohio State consistently gets the best talent from the Midwest and also pulls five star recruits from Florida. Their classes are as good, and as fast, as the classes that USC, Texas and Florida are grabbing. Ohio State was every bit as physically talented as USC but lost anyway. Why do they fold against top caliber teams?

The answer came to me while I was watching Ohio State's otherwise dominant defense collapse at the end of each half against USC. The Big 10, and especially its elite, do not condition the same way they do in the South. Its happened with the Buckeyes before. Texas went to a no-huddle hurry-up offense a year ago and the Ohio State D was barely staying upright by the end of the drive. Lack of conditioning, and perhaps even a lack of practice, make you look slow.

If Exhibit A is a fatigued Buckeye, Exhibit B is the Rich Rodriguez experience at Michigan. Rodriguez expects his players to practice and condition like everyone else and players start to rebel. Why? They haven't done it before. And now that they have taken on a big league conditioning regiment, Michigan is quickly looking like a contender again-they are faster at every position, even at positions that are still filled by Lloyd Carr guys.

Exhibit C: Notre Dame is in the Big 10 culturally if not physically. Notre Dame also recruits nationally, so the slowness of Yankees should not be a problem. But the knock on Notre Dame is their teams have been slow, right? But the real problem has not been raw speed-if you look at the Notre Dame recruiting classes for the last 8 years their classes have not been slower than, say, Navy or Syracuse. But they've looked slow recently because they haven't trained hard enough. They have suffered from both the Big 10 culture and Charlie Weis' self-constructed image as a super genius whose teams can outsmart others even if they are not as physically prepared.

This does not rule out depth as a possibility. While Big 10 teams can have some very good players, and Ohio State and Michigan can even field an entire first team of very good players, it is harder to get the depth of talent that a USC or Florida has (demography again). Lack of depth can make you look slow and can cause you to tire early.

Friday, September 11, 2009

This week's games: USC at Ohio State

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Ohio State got better last year as Pryor learned the ropes in his new job. Considering that and the talent that USC lost last year to the NFL, one might be tempted to pick Ohio State in this rematch.

Not so fast, my friend.

Pryor, though dangerous in his own way, is limited. He is strong with the ball in his hands, and Tressel is finding new ways to keep the ball in his hands, but he's no Pat White. He's also much less scary when he tries to distribute the ball to his teammates. The USC secondary is good enough that the targets Pryor will need to hit will be miniscule-and I'm not convinced he can do that consistently.

And USC is a program that simply reloads. Freshman Matt Barkley has not yet faced a large, hostile crowd, but breakdowns in the Ohio State secondary and wide open receivers should help him feel right at home. As I've said before, USC will win this by 20.

This week's games: LSU vs. Vanderbilt

Thursday, September 10, 2009

This week's games: East Carolina at West Virginia

The loss to East Carolina just about threw the Mountaineer faithful into a fitful frenzy. Rich Rod had left blazing trail of infamy behind him (trying to snag some recruits on his way out of Dodge) and Bill Stewart didn't seem up to the job. One win a way from the national championship game only a few months ago, West Virginia appeared to be in free fall. And they didn't just lose to East Carolina, they got a beat down (analogous in so many ways to the Dolphins win over the Patriots). West Virginia was able to right the ship, though, and ended with a decent season (though far inferior to the Rich Rod heyday). For East Carolina, the 15 minutes of fame ended all too soon. Three straight losses dropped them out of sight, only to reemerge with a C-USA championship at season's end.

At only 6.5 point underdogs, and with Patrick Pinkney still behind center, East Carolina has a chance to pull off the upset again. Their win against App. State won't woo any voters, but they got the job done. West Virginia, on the other hand, gave up 20 points to Liberty. If they were playing at home, I just might pick the pirates, but West Virginia gets a notable home field advantage.

This week's games: Mississippi State at Auburn

Last year, Tuberville brought in a spread guru as offensive coordinator, and it effectively cost him his job. New head coach Gene Chizik, to my surprise, did the same thing, bringing in Malzhan (Tulsa). The early results were impressive. Against a La Tech defense that is less athletic than my church softball team, Auburn's racked up more than 550 yards of offense, more than 300 of it on the ground. Freshman RB McCalebb ran for 150 yards, and Chris Todd completed 65% of his passes for 9.8 yards per completion.

But it was the Mississippi State game a year ago that was the turning point (for the worst). It was an incredible display of offensive impotency for both teams. Fortunately, Auburn was able to eek out a field goal or they might still be pounding away in overtime locked at nil-nil. To me, Auburn can prove in this game that things have really changed. Given Auburn's talent and past proficiency on defense, and Chizik's success as a D-coordinator, if Auburn scores more than 30 points in this game we could have ourselves a dark horse challenger in the SEC.

This week's games: Iowa at Iowa State

In order to know how effective a treatment is you need at least two groups-a group that receives the treatment (the experimental group) and a group that does not (the control group). You can then compare the experimental group to the control group to see how effective the treatment is. We now have a control group for the Iowa running game and, comparing that to last season, we can measure the effect of the Shonn Greene treatment. Against Northern Iowa (a tough FCS opponent, but still an FCS opponent), Iowa pounded out whopping 2.8 yards per carry. This means that, even though the passing game was decently effective, Iowa converted only 25% of third downs because many of them were long. Iowa was outgained and outmanned and should have lost that game. In other words, the Shonn Greene treatment last year was about as effective as the small pox vaccine--Iowa was completely, totally, and holistically dependent on their workhouse running back.

Working in their favor, Iowa gets another FCS opponent (who has been masquerading as a member of the Big XII for a decade now). The game is in Aimes and Iowa State had a more convincing win in week 1 against their FCS opponent, but they've got as much going for them as Somalia or the Michael Vick 2012 presidential campaign. Dressing up like USC doesn't actually make you play like USC.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

This week's games: South Carolina at Georgia

Many similarities between these two teams so far. First, they both faced outstanding quarterbacks in their first week and kept themselves in these games by keeping those same quarterbacks in check. Russell Wilson managed only 74 passing yards against a still stout USC pass defense and Zac Robinson squeeked out 135 yards against the Bulldogs. But their own quarterback play from Stephen Garcia and Joe Cox was dodgy enough to merit only 7 points for South Carolina (a win) and 10 for Georgia (a loss). In other words, great pass defense will be nullified by an inability to pass the ball. Georgia is at home, is the better team, and really needs this win after losing in week 1, so expect them to win, but they will need to do it with their running game. On the other hand, Georgia caught South Carolina at just the right time last season (see above), but still just escaped with a 14-7 win in Columbia. Without Stafford and Moreno, this one might go the other way.

This week's games: UCLA at Tennessee

The Tenessee v. Pac-10 games in the past have been a lot of fun in the past, but not in the "boy, that was a good game" way. The two conferences generally have clashing styles which force coaches to make interesting pre and in-game tactical decisions. And this game does feature a couple of superstars in the coaching business. Lane Kiffin has now won more than 25% of his games as a head coach so he's really got the folks in Knoxville excited. Rick Neuheisel, who always hits a high point in his first season before running programs into the ground, has already hit rock-bottom at UCLA and so, I presume, can only go up from there. The best thing about college football is that somebody's always got to win.

This week's games: Clemson vs. Georgia Tech

Part two of the ACC reclamation project. After an absolutely abysmal weekend in the ACC, Miami and Florida State revived some faith in the ole basketball conference. Georgia Tech and Clemson will take the national stage on Thursday and hope to impress as well.

Don't count on it.

Though I wish the best for Paul Johnson and the spread option project, I think it will hit a snag in the road this season. Johnson was actually very fortunate in the available personnel when he arrived at Georgia Tech given his system so, unlike Rodriguez at Michigan, he won't see much Sophomore season improvement. Also, being in a conference works against him in the sense that more of his opponents will already have prepared for the system more times in the past-when LSU had time to prepare specifically for the Yellow Jackets last season, the result was rather ugly. In fact, the Tech team in 2008 was typical for Tech in this decade, and I think this team will be lucky to reach that level.

And while Clemson did improve throughout the season, this trend was exaggerated by falling expectations. When fans and analysts accepted just how bad Clemson could be, small successes suddenly seemed much larger. Though improved, Clemson was never actually good last year, and I have no reason to believe that will change. But, as I've said in the past, one nice thing about college football is that someone has to win, and right now that might be all the ACC can hope for.

This week's games: BYU at Tulane

It is not often that the Green Wave get to host the number 9 team in the country, and to be only 17 point underdogs has to be encouraging. After playing with nothing to lose a week ago, BYU is now playing with the weight of the world on its shoulders. AP voters took a big gamble in voting the Cougars up 11 spots. And BYU might be tempted to look ahead-when Florida State comes to town it will be the biggest game in Provo that didn't involve the Utes in a very long time. With a few guys at ESPN talking BCS and even national championship game, Max Hall and Co. will need to work hard to stay focused on day to day tasks. The Tulane program has been on a downward slide since Katrina, though, and shouldn't prove too tough a test for BYU.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

This week's games: Notre Dame at Michigan

Considering that these two teams have hit new historic lows the last couple of seasons, this game is absurdly attention grabbing nationally. But it warrants the attention. First, it is the undercard of a weekend that will make or break the Big 10. Wins by the Wolverines and Buckeyes would catapult the Big 10 out of pee-wee league status. We also have two coaches that are on the ropes and need to win early and often. And both teams looked they were ready to do just that after impressive debuts.

Michigan's offense is much improved from a year ago (watching Sheridan and Threet do their best Pat White impressions was always good for a laugh). And a much maligned defense underperformed relative to its talent last season, and showed signs of moving in the right direction against Western Michigan. But this Michigan team, like last year's, is too prone to mood swings, and a hostile crowd at home just exacerbated that last season. Consequently, the first 10 minutes of this game will be crucial. If Clausen-to-Floyd gets rolling early (and I think it will), it could be a very long day for the blue-and-gold with silly mistakes, schematic breakdowns, and lackluster effort. On the other side, it will come down to speed-does Notre Dame field enough speed to keep Robinson from breaking a long touchdown? If so, Notre Dame will cover its 3.5.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bad prognostication: even I've been wrong before

As much as it pains me to say, even I've been wrong before. Here are a couple of comments I made midway through last season. In my defense, it was at this point that UF started to really turn things around, but to call Tebow unexceptional is mildly heretical. I backed the right horse in the Big 10, but I should have known that the Big 10 never really has been nor ever really will be competitive in the Rose Bowl. That conference is just too classy to always be playing in and trying to win bowl games. Silly me.

3) Penn State is the best team in the Big 10. The title doesn't mean as much as it used to, but it does mean that maybe, just maybe, the Big 10 will be able to give the Pac 10 a real game in the Rose Bowl this year.

2) Florida just isn't that good. Last year, they couldn't keep a JV team from throwing for 300 yards. This year, the problem isn't that simple. This Florida team is generally unexceptional at all aspects of the game-including quarterback.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

BYU wins despite setbacks

BYU WINS, and they do so without their all conference linebacker and running back. They win despite giving away the ball three times inside their 30. And Max Hall was hobbled himself. OU obviously wasn't at full strength, but lets remember that they only scored 10 points in the first half with Bradford on the field. Before we start making excuses for Oklahoma at the expense of BYU, lets just remember that BYU outgained Oklahoma in the first half (because Bradford didn't have any protection) and led in every major statistical category besides turnovers at the end of the game. I hope Sam Bradford makes a speedy recovery and earns millions in the NFL, but we need to recognize that, today, his football team was not as good as Max Hall's football team.

Friday, September 4, 2009

This week's games: Oklahoma State vs. Georgia

I am posting two sets of graphs to compare teams that will be playing this week. One set shows how the teams have performed from 1994 to 2008 using the Matrix Hybrid rating. The second shows the trend-O-meter rating from 2008. Enjoy.

This game has surprisingly big team and conference implications. Oklahoma State needs this win if anyone is going to believe that they have really arrived. Georgia needs this win to put themselves back on the map after a relatively disappointing result last season. This game also represents the only meaningful game, and therefore important bragging rights, between the Big XII against the SEC before bowl season. Oklahoma State will have more experience at the skill positions, and early in the season that can be crucial.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

This week's games: BYU vs. Oklahoma

I am posting two sets of graphs to compare teams that will be playing this week. One set shows how the teams have performed from 1994 to 2008 using the Matrix Hybrid rating. The second shows the trend-O-meter rating from 2008. Enjoy.

BYU was moving in the wrong direction last season, in large part because of the injury to TE Dennis Pitta. Pitta's back, but WR Austin Collie's gone, and the Cougars can only hope that recently returned missionary Mckay Jacobson can make up for Collie's lost production. His ability to do that will depend less on his own talent and more on BYU's relatively inexperienced offensive line. Oklahoma's D-line will be about as good as any in the country, and QB Max Hall could spend a lot of time in a more horizontal position than he might like.

Bradford, though, might also experience more horizontality this season than he has yet as the Sooner QB. If BYU's Jan Jorgensen can disrupt the calm demeanor of OU's offense, BYU could keep Oklahoma under 40. BYU can score 28 against anybody on a good day, so it is possible they keep this game moderately close. It's also possible they lose by 50. And that, my friends, is why we play the games-to see if they will lose by 10 or half a century (or maybe's it really just the big paycheck).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

This week's games: Missouri vs. Illinois

I am posting two sets of graphs to compare teams that will be playing this week. One set shows how the teams have performed from 1994 to 2008 using the Matrix Hybrid rating. The second shows the trend-O-meter rating from 2008. Enjoy.

Last year, this game was thought to have BCS implications. It didn't. Missouri started 2008 where it had left off in 2007, but they took a big step back during that season and they will take a bigger step back this year. Illinois should be the same mediocre to bad team they have been since bringing in Zook (with the exception of 2007 until they were exposed by USC). Zook should have some good talent that will be coming of age this season, but, just as in Florida, Illinois will need to find a real football coach if they want to exploit that talent. Regardless, even if the level of play will be lower this year than what it has been in years past, this should still be a fun game to watch.

This week's games: Miami at Florida State

I am posting two sets of graphs to compare teams that will be playing this week. One set shows how the teams have performed from 1994 to 2008 using the Matrix Hybrid rating. The second shows the trend-O-meter rating from 2008. Enjoy.

These two, once proud programs have been in nose dive mode for most of the last decade-Florida State since 1999 and Miami since 2001 (years in which both teams marked a perfect score in the Matrix Hybrid). It is no small coincidence that Miami saw its stock rise as Florida State was plummeting, and Florida has risen to become THE national power as both programs have fallen to new lows. Rumor has it, though, that Florida State is on the mend, and their performance last year seems to be evidence of that. Shannon has been recruiting well enough to restore Miami to respectability, but we are yet to see the fruits of his labors on the field. I want to see if either team can field a well-oiled offense before I hop on any bandwagons.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

This week's games: Virginia Tech vs. Alabama

I am posting two sets of graphs to compare teams that will be playing this week. One set shows how the teams have performed from 1994 to 2008 using the Matrix Hybrid rating. The second shows the trend-O-meter rating from 2008. Enjoy.

Until last year, Virginia Tech had been the better program for about a decade, but were in need of some rebuilding last year and still look like a work in progress. The Tide have improved substantially since the arrival of Saban and seem to be well ahead of Virginia Tech in their rebuilding projects going in to this season.

This game will go to the team who's defense scores first. A Darren Evan-less VT offense is better off punting before Tyrod Taylor gives up a pick six. And Bama's defense will be as good as any in the country. I'm not sure how they'll respond after losing Macho Harris, but if the VT secondary can keep Julio Jones in check Alabama's offense will be as exciting as pit stains. Should be fun.

This week's games: Nevada at Notre Dame

I am posting two sets of graphs to compare teams that will be playing this week. One set shows how the teams have performed from 1994 to 2008 using the Matrix Hybrid rating. The second shows the trend-O-meter rating from 2008. Enjoy.

Do not let Notre Dame's performance against Hawaii fool you--this team was not substantially improved last season and was not improving through the course of the season. At the end of the regular season last year, Nevada was probably the better team, and the last two seasons Notre Dame and Nevada have rated out fairly evenly in the Matrix. I expect the Domers to win at home, but, in short, 14 points is too much.