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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Friday, June 02, 2006

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This is a relatively quick hit, so SMQ isn't doing the numbers-crunching to dispute Heisman Pundit's conference rankings for 2006, or any of its specifics (though claims that PAC Ten teams are more varied offense, more competitive and better coached than any other conference are, shall we say, less than convincing, much less empirical, to say nothing of statements touting the reputed non-vanillaness of Urban Meyer's scheme, the "power" aspects of Minnesota's successful trap-and-pull attack, the coaching abilities of John L. Smith and Glen Mason over those of Lloyd Carr - a national championship-winne r whom HP lumps with never-won-nothin' Ron Zook at the "rear" of the Big Ten ranks - or the "permanent underclass" status of postseason regulars Arkansas and South Carolina in the SEC, among other dubious and unsupported conclusions). In general SMQ has no supportable opinion and could not have much less interest in the futile, partisan bickering over which conference is collectively microns "better" than all of the others. Winning, or losing, in any of the BCS conferences, save maybe the Big East (for now), seems about equally impressive, or shameful.

Rather, it's SMQ's sense of honest assessment that's offended by the Pundit's methodology for generating these rankings - three months prior to the first competitive snap, no less - which are based on apparently subjective (he gives no criteria for his 1-5 grade per category) scores in the following areas:

- Coaching
- Diversity of Offensive Scheme
- Schedule strength
- Competitiveness
- Talent Level

Across the spectrum of the five major conferenc es rated here, talent level, schedule strength and competitiveness is relatively the same (except for the latter category in the PAC Ten, perhaps, where despite HP's high regard for the parity of its Sun Bowl-seekers, USC has crushed the league und er its heel four years running); there is no way a sample size of the most objective measure, schedule strength, could possibly be large enough to draw good conclusions. Coaching ought to be rated about the same everywhere, too, as records throughout thes e conferences are extremely similar, and as coaching is an intangible virtually impossible to quantify, especially as good coaches also quickly accumulate the best talent, without which nobody wins big in any league (when it comes to Pete Carroll and Regg ie Bush, for instance, or Pat White and Rich Rodriguez, who made who look good? Does this mean these guys aren't good coaches? If Houston Nutt had Vince Young, what would his score be?).
Predictably, though, it's the "Diversity of Offensive Scheme" category that most draws SMQ's ire, not because it's so subjective - hard to complain about that compared to the other criteria here - but because it's wrong: good teams are usually good at everything, not merely offense, and regardless of "diversity" (the dominant, high--scoring mid-nineties Nebraska teams, for example, were not particularly diverse, nor, especially, was Texas the last two years, which won the Rose Bowl twice mostly because Vince Young is really hard to tackle).

This can be a tricky argument, because SMQ believes in balance and diversity on offense, and in life generally. If you can do more things well, you're going to be better, which is the central point here: being good on offense, whether it's in a suitably "diverse" fashion or n ot, is only one piece of being a good team overall. HP restricts this principle only to one facet of a complicated game.

In itself, diversity has no inherent virtue. It's not for lack of ideas or creativity that NFL offenses are far, far more homogenous in formation, scheme and playcalling tendencies than college offenses - it's because far, far less works against NFL defenses, and therefore high quality of defensive play is driving the conservative "innovation" favoring Tom Bradys, Jake Delhommes, Brad Johnsons, Matt Hasselbecks and Drew Breeses, all "game managers" lacking laser arms or fearsome scrambling ability but who won't shrivel up against the snorting beasts trying to maim them at 20 miles an hour (SMQ would generally lump high picks Alex Smith and Matt Leinart into the "manager" category, and Brady Quinn, too, when he's not throwing against BYU, though he wouldn't make the argument that college football is moving in this direction...yet). This suggests that offensive diversity actually decreases with higher levels of play, because the defensive ability of the best teams so restricts what offenses are capable of accomplishing with, say, the spread option (Urban Meyer might have some insights about this).

This jibes with SMQ's con clusion (made here, here and here) last December that, in 2005 at least, the play of defense was much more closely correlated with success than the play of offense. That's correlation, which is not the same as causation, as they say, but it's verifiably true that the top 20 teams in each defensive category last year had better aggregate records than the top teams in any offensive category. The average final statistical rankings of the top 25, and especially the top 10, were significantly higher in every defensive category than in any offensive category.

On the other, more subjective hand, there's only one really good argument - besides USC, of course, which has to be excepted here as an extreme outlier - for PAC Ten offenses in general being better than those of the rest of the country, and not just the result of playing bad defenses, and vice versa in the SEC: Arizona State's 560-yard, 31-point effort against LSU in September. That this displ ay came in defeat should invalidate the automatic effects of big, big stats on won-loss records (count, when you have the time, fans, how many of last year's most outrageous passing totals - a healhty signifier of "diversity," SMQ is guessing - came via losing quarterbacks playing catch-up). This also ignores an equally valid argument that SEC offenses were largely stagnant because SEC defenses were just really, really good, made in two bowl games: Alabama completely stuffing Texas Tech's "funky" passing attack in the Cotton Bowl, and LSU - owner of the nation's 60th-ranked total offense - dropping 40 on Miami's fourth-ranked defense in the Peach Bowl.

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The fact that most SEC offenses do not throw to their tight ends or backs creatively or with regularity out of their base formations lends us to believe that teams like Georgia would be at a distinct disadvantage against a team like Boise State...

But again, these examples are anomalies to the whole, where winning - while more closely correlated with good defense than good offense - is most traceable to being good all over the field. That is, offense is important, defense is important, special teams are important, and turnover margin is important. In the long run, it's all important, which is much more than can be said of any formula that entirely ignores three of these factors in the name of some faux innovation.

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3:54 AM

Very thoughtful. And thanks for re-linking to last year's stat relevance work, which I'd nearly forgotten.

Gives me great hope for Texas' chances at repeating. Horns are losing a lot in the passing game, but return a ferocious defense.

Good stuff, Matt.
Good stuff. A couple things:

--When I talk about diversity of scheme, I am talking about the range of offenses in a conference, not the offenses themselves. This rates which conferences have the most divergent offenses--from power running, to spread to pro style, etc. So, I am not restricted my assessment of teams to offense, merely pointing out that defenses that have to face a wide array of attacks generally are more proven.

--Yes, Lloyd Carr won a national title. So did Phil Fulmer and Bobby Bowden. Which of the three has set the world on fire of late?

--Sure, Arkansas and SC go to bowls, but it's already been demonstrated that scheduling is the reason. My question was: When do they compete for SEC titles? The answer, of course, is never. That is a fully supported conclusion based on history.

--I agree that talent is a big part, which is why it is one of my criteria. But, good coaching combined with good talent makes for better conferences. I think there is a huge difference between Urban Meyer and Ron Zook. The talent is about the same, but Meyer will be more successful with it because he is a better coach and so the SEC got better as a result. At the same time, Northwestern has no talent yet seems to find a way to bowl games on a regular basis.

--I think there are a couple examples of dynamic offenses being successful in the NFL, most recently with Indianapolis and St. Louis. I think offenses are generally conservative in the NFL because of the parity in talent level across the league, not just because of the defenses. If you can get in the posteason with six losses, there is less incentive to be freewheeling. Why risk turnovers? That's the mentality that creates stodgy offenses.

--Naturally, no one is right all the time. I'm sure that we could all find things that other people wrote that turned out to be off base. I agree that the conference rankings are usually futile and hard to gauge. Which is why I took a different tack this time. I think people are mainly pissed because the Pac-10 came out on top. If it was the SEC that came out on top, I'd be getting huzzahs. But probably not.
HP, I will leave aside all of the problems inherent to any system upon which you determine the criteria, and rank the criteria yourself, to come up with a list of the best conferences. Not that your method is totally without merit--it's such a difficult enterprise that just about anything anyone comes up with will have some faults.

That being said--historically, without much doubt, Arkansas was the #2 program in the SWC, behind Texas. Certainly, the SWC was not the best of conferences, but they were undoubtedly "major" and viewed as equivalent to the Pac 10, SEC, Big 10, et al., depending on how the results played out over the course of a particular season.

Now that they have moved to the SEC, they have, in your estimation become an also-ran, a team with no chance of ever (!) winning an SEC title. Given that Texas has strung together some pretty good teams since the breakup of the SWC, as has Texas A&M (both have won the Big 12, which is also, by any measure, a "major" conference), can't you acknowledge that this fact undermines your contention that the SEC is weak?

Texas might be an exception, as they have always been dominant. But the fact that A&M--historically, inferior to Arkansas--has been competitive in the Big 12, a conference perceived by nearly all as an equal to the SEC, seems to point to one of two conclusions:

(1) The SEC is markedly stronger than the Big 12
(2) Arkansas will eventually be competitive

As for me, I happen to believe #2 is the case--really, a 15 year sample size is pretty small, particularly given that Arkansas has made it to the SECC twice and run into pretty good teams both times--but I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

I mean, 'Zona hasn't won the Pac 10 in 28 years, Oregon State hasn't won it in over 40 years, and Cal hasn't won the conference in over 50 years--'based on history' can we assume that these teams will never win the Pac 10?
"When do they compete for SEC titles? The answer, of course, is never"...."Naturally, no one is right all the time."
I agree with HP, no one is right all the time. He, unfortunately, seems to take pleasure in being wrong quite often.
Arkansas played in the SEC Championship game in 1995 and in 2002. Mississippi State played in the SEC Championship in 1998. Finally, Ole Miss tied eventual BCS champion LSU for the SEC West title in 2003 but was denied a trip to the championship game via the head-to-head tie breaker.
HP is right about one thing, if he posted a conference rankings in which the SEC was number one, I would tend to disagree.
SMQ would generally lump high picks Alex Smith and Matt Leinart into the "manager" category, and Brady Quinn, too, when he's not throwing against BYU, though he wouldn't make the argument that college football is moving in this direction...yet

The all-time winningest quarterback in division 1-A history...that would be David Greene...would fall head first into this category. It's already happening, it's just that the big arm, big athleticism quarterbacks get most of the publicity and hype.
Solon, could to see you around again.

My conclusion re: Arkansas really had nothing to do with the old SWC conference. I am well aware of their tradition and success in that conference.

But, since entering the SEC, they have yet to win or share a single title. I understand that the title game prevents sharing, but I find that interesting that Arkansas won three SWC titles from 1979-1989 but has not taken as single SEC crown since. Even if you take into account a couple good years for Arkansas, you would hardly consider them an SEC power on par with where they were in the SWC. There is no doubt that they have taken a step backward as a program, especially when compared to Texas and A&M in the Big 12.

Even if we acknowledge that Arkansas isn't a bottom feeder, that still leaves five SEC teams that really have no shot year in and year out of challenging for the SEC title.

As for Arizona, the fact is that they shared the Pac-10 title in 1998 and have been ranked in the final top 10 a couple times in the last 15 years, including a 12-1 record in that '98 season. You, of all people, should know that.

Oregon State shared the title in 2000 with Oregon and Washington while going 11-1 and finishing fourth. Cal finished in the top 10 a couple years ago and was a play away from winning the Pac-10. This is what I mean by 'challenging' for a conference title.

In the last 10 years, eight different Pac-10 teams have finished in the top five in the polls and all, save Stanford, have finished in the top 10. That's what I mean by a 'competitive' conference. No permanent underclass, but dynamic, shifting balances of power.

For what it's worth, the SEC I believe is markedly stronger than the Big 12, as my analysis showed.

I also agree with you that it's hard to rank the conferences. Those were criteria that I found important. I was shocked, frankly, that the Pac-10 finished where it did. I went in expecting the Big Ten to be No. 1.
HP, it's slightly disingenuous to claim that SC, Ark, Ole Miss, et al. are a 'permanent underclass' because they haven't won an 'outright' title since 1963, and then give Pac 10 teams credit who haven't managed the same feat.

For my money, if I were ranking teams that were members of the 'permanent underclass' of the SEC, I wouldn't include Ole Miss in that group either. South Carolina is a school that I can't see cracking through right now, but if UF, UT, and UGA were all in transitional periods and it all came together for them, I could see them winning it one year. So, I will fully admit that MSU, Vandy, and Ky are members of a permanent underclass, and without exceptional circumstances (hiring the right coach, having a favorable conference schedule one year, etc.) will not be winning the SEC any time soon.

The problem is that schools like South Carolina and Kentucky, for that matter, are no different than Washington State, for example. Washington State only wins the Pac 10 when you have the perfect storm--and, relatively speaking, in any event it's much easier to win the Pac 10 than it is to win the SEC. On a simplistic level, you've got to top 11 others to win the SEC, whereas you've only got to top 9 others to win the Pac 10; and, when USC, or UCLA/Washington (arguably the only "traditional powers" in the Pac 10) have a down year, someone has to fill the vacuum; meanwhile, when Florida and Alabama subsided in the early part of this decade, Georgia and LSU were there to fill the voids. When they subside, Tennessee and Auburn will be there. It's just much harder to count on 6 teams having an off year (or, 3 in your division) than counting on 1, 2, or 3 having one.

Stanford 1999 is the greatest example of this in action. Stanford that season lost to a 3-7 San Jose State team, and lost to a 9-5 Texas team 69-17, but they took advantage of USC (6-6), UCLA (4-7), and Washington (7-5) having down years to win the Pac-10 title. Oregon 1994 was an analagous situation; USC (8-3-1) was halfway decent that season, but unable to beat an Oregon team at home playing with their backup QB. Neither of these teams is an argument for the strength of the Pac 10.

Admittedly, the Pac 10 is currently in the middle of a hyper-competitive cycle that has produced 8 different Top 5 teams nationally in the last 10 years. But this isn't some sort of historical trend, it is an accident of history, and every conference that has been around long enough has seem similar fluctuations. And, in any event, it doesn't follow that it proves a conference is good (see Stanford 1999 and Oregon 1994 for examples).

For example, between the years 1951-1995, only USC (10), UCLA (7), Washington (3), and ASU (1) finished in the Top 5. If you break it down even further, USC and UCLA were the only Pacific Coast/AAWU/Pac 8 conference teams to finish in the Top 5 nationally between 1951 and 1983. But if you look at non-conference records and bowl records, the conference was much more accomplished during that time, particularly if you narrow your focus to the 1970's or thereabouts.
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