Friday, November 30, 2012

"Billionaire Ball" Review Part 2: The Rise and Fall of the Superconferences

If you made it all way through Part 1 of my review of Matt Hinton's "Billionaire Ball," you'll have read my promise to discuss how college athletics can maintain its traditions while maximizing revenue. As Hinton wrote in his essay, college athletics without tradition would be nothing more than minor leagues and thus lose its ability to generate revenue. This is why the Big East is doomed: in its desperate search for football teams, it has destroyed its northeastern basketball tradition. There is no reason to pay money to watch a matches between Tulane, East Carolina, or Cincinnati, even among supporters of those schools. There's no reason to hate each other, no reason to respect each other, no reason for a rivalry.

The movements of Maryland, Rutgers, Louisville, and others have lead many, particularly in ACC country, to ask if four superconferences are inevitable. The ACC is worried, with good reason, because they are four "nuclei" of college sports fandom in the US that can serve as the bases for superconferences: Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, and Chicago. Charlotte is just too small. The northeast corridor, barring the improbable re-emergence of the Ivy League as a sporting powerhouse, cannot form such a nucleus because its population is distributed among too many different schools. New York City will always have significant fan bases for Rutgers, Syracuse, Connecticut, and other local schools, but no school will every hold New York's attention the way USC/UCLA can hold Los Angeles's or Texas/Oklahoma can hold Dallas's. Every emergent power in college athletics will try to grab a piece of the northeast market: the Big Ten's acquisition of Rutgers and Maryland is the first move in the upcoming fight for the extra piece of the pie.

For the next few years, it's going to be all about the money. But after that, the realization will come that there is no money without tradition. No 16-team football superconference will be able to maintain meaningful traditions; as Brian Cook is fond of saying: it's not a conference, it's a scheduling arrangement. And without traditions, there's no money. I'm going to speculate here and risk being embarrassingly wrong, but, after the jump, I'll take my best shot at predicting how college athletics will make its fortune while only temporarily losing its soul.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Essay Review: Matt Hinton, "Billionaire Ball," from The Baffler #20 (Part 1)

Over on the Twitter, Will Leitch stated that Jonathan Chait's blog post for New York was the "definite take" on the Big Ten's expansion "madness." I can't really agree with this, as the definitive take on the economics of college athletics had already appeared in June, in an essay by Matt Hinton in The Baffler #20. A quick consultation of Google indicates that the intersection of sports bloggers and people who read left-wing cultural agitprop is me and Mr. Hinton, the difference between us being that he gets paid for it. To summarize:


Thus, it falls to me to inform the survivors of the Maryland/Rutgers apocalypse that Hinton thoroughly described the pernicious influence of money on college athletics over the offseason and predicted the music was nowhere near finished in the conferences' game of musical chairs. In Part 2 of this tl;dr post, I'll discuss what I think the landscape will be like when the revenues are maximized and the new equilibrium is reached. Here in Part 1, I'll discuss Hinton's dissection of the history and future of college athletics, which The Baffler's section editor helpfully labeled as "Studies in Total Depravity."

A golden flash of stupidity

(Post has been edited and updated in response to Sam Ed Feng's comments. Unnecessary profanity has been removed and/or replaced with red text. Also see below. Whether the title of this post refers to me, Ed, or Wesley Colley is for you to decide.)

So I woke up this morning and got on the Internet, looking for the outcome of the ohio-Duke game  -- I was, like all good-hearted people, rooting for both to lose so that Michigan could be ranked #2 -- when I was blindsided by an act of reading comprehension and statistical innumeracy so massive that I completely forgot what I was doing and said, "I must write a blog post to address this folly!"

I am not familiar with Ed Feng's work at thepowerrank.com, so I do not know if his reputation is good or bad. However, in science as in life, reputation should be irrelevant: if you're spouting B.S., you should expect to get called on your B.S. no matter what your track record is. Feng's attack on the Colley Matrix is so incorrect that it ranks as a sub-Bleacher Report level trolling of Matt Sussman, the state of Oklahoma, and statisticians everywhere. It convinced Stewart Mandel, of course.

In his article, Feng writes:
However, the Colley Matrix, the one fully transparent computer poll, does not use this game-specific information. The system considers a team's win-loss record and strength of schedule; yet, the results of each individual game are not counted as an input. The method doesn't care whether Kent State's loss came against Kentucky or against Rutgers.
This is incorrect. Competely and utterly incorrect. The Colley Matrix does use game-specific information: it takes as its input solely the record of who won or who lost each game. It doesn't take into account whether that game was home, away, or at a neutral site. It doesn't take into account margin of victory and wouldn't even if it were allowed. It doesn't take into account team reputation, hence Colley's referring to the method as "bias-free." All of this information is freely available in the PDF document Wesley Colley provides explaining his method, which Feng either didn't read or didn't understand (Edit: uncalled-for.) For example, the input to the Colley Matrix for the Big Ten conference play would be:


A 1 in your row means you won the game, a -1 means you lost, and a 0 means you didn't play this year. If Illinois has beaten Indiana instead of vice versa, then the -1 in Row 1, Column 2 would become a 1 and the 1 in Row 2, Column 1 would become a -1. Encoded slightly differently, this is the input the Colley Matrix uses. It takes into account the outcome of each game; what Feng wrote was 100%, absolutely, positively, wrong, and SI.com should issue a retraction or correction.

The source of Feng's outrage is the Colley Matrix's "play god" feature. If you edit the rankings by assuming that Kent State lost to Rutgers and beat Kentucky instead of the other way around, Kent State ends up ranked #17 instead of #16. Let's go to the chart:

Seriously, Dr. Colley, hire someone to redesign your web page.

If we change Kent State's loss to Kentucky to a loss to Rutgers, Kent State drops a spot in the rankings because Rutgers didn't lose to Kent State and is thus ranked higher! The only other change is the Top 25 is that South Carolina and LSU flip, which happens because Skarlina's win over Kentucky would count for less if Kentucky hadn't beaten Kent State.

Feng was full of outrage because he couldn't even be fucking bothered to look at the rightmost column of the chart. The actual raw rating for Kent State is 0.766. In the hypothetical situation, Kent State's raw rating INCREASES to 0.768. This is exactly in line with common sense. If you take away both a good win and a bad loss from a team's record, their rating doesn't change much.

The switch of the outcome of the Kent State-Kentucky game is nothing more than a distraction, sort of the college football equivalent of Bertrand's box paradox. If the only change you make is that Rutgers beats Kent State, then Rutgers is ranked #16 and Kent State is ranked #25. That is, they switch positions as if the outcome of their match-up actually meant something.

(Edit: Mr. Feng's intentions are not in evidence in his article and it was inappropriate for me to cast aspersions on them. I apologize to Mr. Feng.)
Sam Feng's article is a perfect example of anti-science. He started with the conclusion he wanted -- Kent State shouldn't make the BCS -- and cherry-picked data in order to make his point. He ignored all the data that demonstrated he was full of shit, and owes Dr. Colley an apology for misrepresenting his work.

However, this is not to say that I am a fan of the Colley Matrix. While the statistical methodology is sound, the underlying non-mathematical assumptions about football are inane. Colley is proud of the fact that, in his rankings, "score margin does not matter at all" and writes:
Ignoring margin of victory eliminates the need for ad hoc score deflation methods and home/away adjustments. If you have to go to great lengths to deflate scores, why use scores?
You should use scores because they provide more information about the quality of a team! Our post-season opinion of Michigan is based heavily on the fact that Alabama beat Michigan 41-14 and not 24-23. Based on that game, the Colley Matrix concludes only that Alabama was better than Michigan on that day, while the margin of victory tells us that Alabama was far better than Michigan that day. Colley's presentation of his rankings is anti-scientific: he is proud of the fact that he throws away useful information because he doesn't know how to incorporate it into his system.

In contrast, consider Nate Silver's acclaimed electoral prediction system. Silver knows that certain pollsters skew toward either Republicans or Democrats. Does he throw out their polls? No! He calculates, in a rational (not ad hoc) fashion the "house effect" of each poll and adjusts its margins accordingly. With access to full play-by-play data, there is no reason that a rational adjustment of margin of victory could not be applied for use in football rankings. With a little thought, a rational adjustment could not only not reward rolling up the score, but actually punish it as unsportsmanlike.

In summary, if you throw our data for no good reason, you're bad at statistics. I disapprove of Colley because I don't agree with his assumptions, but at least he puts them out for all the world to see. I disapprove of Feng because I don't know what the fuck he was doing, and I don't think he knows what the fuck he was doing either.

UPDATE (1:52 PM):

Ed Feng graciously replied in the comments and noted that the matrix shown above is not the Colley Matrix. This is correct but not germane to my point. The Colley Matrix C for the Big Ten regular season is:

The number 10 appears along the diagonal because the it is equal to the number of games played plus two. The -1 values off-diagonal indicate that the two opponents played.

The record for each team is converted into a vector, b, where, for each team, its corresponding element in b is equal to the 1 plus the 1/2 times (the number of wins - the number of losses).

Colley's ratings are the solution r to the matrix equation Cr = b. For this example, the solution is:

You should agree that Ohio State at #1 and Illinois at #12 makes a lot of sense.

Colley's method does not explicitly include the output of every game as individual wins and losses are collapsed into the vector b. This makes the method invariant to "circles of death," e.g., three teams that are 1-1 against each other. In the Big Ten this season, Iowa defeated MSU, MSU defeated Indiana, and Indiana defeated Iowa. If you change the outcome of all three of these games so that MSU beat Iowa, Indiana beat MSU, and Iowa defeated Indiana, then the vector b does not change and thus Colley's rankings do not change. This is not a bad feature for a ranking system based solely on wins and losses to have!

I stand by my statement that Feng's assertion that "[Colley's] method doesn't care whether Kent State's loss came against Kentucky or against Rutgers" is, in isolation, incorrect. I will add the following qualification though. There is a chain between the SEC, Big East and the MAC where:
  • Kent State lost to Kentucky
  • Kentucky lost to Louisville
  • Louisville lost to Connecticut
  • Connecticut lost to Rutgers
  • Rutgers lost to Kent State
If you were to reverse the outcome of all five of these games, Colley's method would produce the exact same ratings. In that sense, Colley's method does not "care" whether Kent State lost to Kentucky or Rutgers as part of a larger set of events that the method doesn't care about. It cares that either: a) Kent State lost to Kentucky but has a four-level win chain over Kentucky, or b) Kent State lost to Rutgers but has a four-level win chain over Rutgers, and treats the two situations equivalently. If you switch the outcomes of all five of the above games in Colley's what-if machine, then you get back the exact same ratings.

Feng's attack on the Colley Ratings, as posted on SI.com, is still very misleading because switching only KSU-Kentucky and Rutgers-KSU results in a perfectly reasonable change to the rankings, namely, Rutgers jumps ahead of KSU. A correction or clarification is still in order.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Incomprehension

A thousand words... (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
In the end, I'm never going to understand this, I'm never going to understand them, I'm never going to understand that feeling.  Jim Tressel is honored during the first quarter break of the Michigan/Ohio State game for his 2002 National Championship season, and he is carried off the field by his players to a standing ovation at the Horseshoe.  Ohio proceeds to get its act together and win 26-21 to complete a perfect 12-0 season.  A season in which they are ineligible for a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions related to Jim Tressel's failure to report what he knew about illegal benefits being given to his players to his superiors.  A season in which they are ineligible for the B1G championship game next weekend because of the post-season sanctions.  But it doesn't matter, a standing ovation for what Tressel did, not how Tressel got caught.

So I'm never going to understand this.  Michigan, by contrast, offered up a 10 year disassociation ban with Chris Webber and the other players in the Ed Martin scandal, a ban which will not end until May 2013.  David Brandon is on record (in the Fab Five documentary last year) that Webber will be welcomed back to Michigan after that ban ends provided he apologizes for what he did to the Michigan basketball program, which seems really unlikely.  Michigan looked at what it had done wrong and fell on its sword (admittedly with its basketball program, not the football program.)  Ohio State, on the other hand, is welcoming back the root cause of its problems and petitioning the White House for a pardon.

So I'm never going to understand them.  Urban Meyer's a hell of a coach, a single-minded perfectionist who will not settle for anything less than perfection.  And he did it, he got perfection out of an imperfect squad. Meanwhile, Michigan had a lead at the half and did exactly nothing to adjust to win the game.  Think about it, the defense, the poor exhausted defense, allowed just two field goals in the second half, and they lost because Michigan forgot all of the awesome stuff they tried on offense last week.  It's like they wanted to PROVE to Ohio  State that they could run up the middle and Ohio State was more than happy to remind them, no you can't.  And so, Ohio State pitched a second half shutout and the last mercurial moments of a storm-tossed career for Denard Robinson ended with both a stunning highlight reel run and a horrific stuff up the middle on fourth down, and then a fumble.

Upside down... (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
So I'm never going to understand this feeling.  Michigan lost four games away from home to what look to be the two teams in the BCS National Championship game, a likely Rose Bowl participant, and team that finished an undefeated season.  They were in three of those four games, but they couldn't close the deal.  So we're 8-4 headed to Bowl season, where pretty much everyone had us before the season started.  Yet, it feels so empty, no upsets, no missed opportunities against lesser foes, plenty of moments where victory was snatched out of the jaws of defeat, but also moments where things were given away in the most incomprehensible fashion.

So Orlando or Tampa for New Year's and back to where we were.  I guess it is true, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Hail Hail.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Maryland to the Big Ten? Hey, I live in Maryland!

Upon hearing that the Big Ten was in negotiations to add Rutgers and Maryland, my first thought was "Why?" My second thought was "I live in Maryland! I can provide some perspective on this proposed conference expansion!" Upon further thought, the reason for adding Rutgers is obvious: Jim Delaney wants to determine whether or not Brady Hoke and Chris Christie are the same person.*

As for Maryland, that's a more difficult nut to crack. The best way to be sure that adding Maryland to the Big Ten is a bad idea is that Under Armour founder and Maryland ├╝ber-booster Kevin Plank is for it. Since Under Armour started trying to turn Maryland into its east coast version of Nike's Oregon, the only great moment Maryland football has experienced is this:

The heraldic term for the red and white Crosslands sigil is a "bottery."
They won that game, but summoned Angry Maryland Quarterback Hating God in the process. It hasn't been pretty. Even Maryland alumni I know are showing no interest in Maryland football these days. Last year, Maryland needed a LivingSocial deal to fill out the upper deck when they played Notre Dame at FedEx Field. Groupons and LivingSocial for big games are not the signs of a healthy program - in contrast, sometimes Georgetown basketball has LivingSocial deals, but they use the deals for filling out the stands against weak non-conference opponents.

Maryland is primarily an NFL state. The northeast simply does not have the pride in its state university athletic teams that the rest of the country does. (Michigan State will never be able to accuse anyone of being a "Target Terrapin.") On Sundays, grocery stores and casual restaurants allow their employees to dress in NFL jerseys. No such policy exists on Saturdays. The boundary between Pittsburgh and Baltimore fans can be carefully traced through Frederick County. The main difference between Ravens fans and Redskins fans is demographic: the younger generation is more likely to be Ravens fans as they've experienced little from Dan Snyder's team but poor play and continually dashed expectations.

The boundary between Steelers and Ravens country is less convoluted than the
boundaries of most Maryland congressional districts.
In terms of college football support, Washington and its surrounding area is a pastiche. The leading teams are Maryland, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Penn State, but the nature of Washington (like New York) is that there's an alumni base from almost every major university. This means that each current Big Ten school has a significant alumni base in the area. Of course, so does every SEC school, ACC school, Big East school, and Big XII school. The prize Maryland offers is getting the Big Ten Network on DC basic cable and the gamble is that the built-in Big Ten alumni bases will put enough pressure on the cable providers to make it happen.

The downside is that the Big Ten has to put up with Maryland's dysfunctional athletic department. An athletic department that would willingly hire Randy Edsall has issues. Maryland is not an exciting football opponent and not, for the moment, an exciting basketball opponent. They'll definitely be useful in establishing a B1G lacrosse conference, but right now the only revenue they offer is the possibility of basic cable revenue.

You may think the silver lining is having a road game every 2-3 years in the DC metro area. While visiting DC is definitely a good idea, visiting College Park, not so much. Despite the WMATA's optimistically naming a Green Line station "College Park - U of MD," the station is two miles from the university, so it's not convenient to stay in a more exciting part of DC and then take public transportation to the game, especially if you're a visitor. This situation should be resolved around 2030 or so or whenever Montgomery County and Prince George's County get the Purple Line built.

You may now be thinking, "Maybe I don't need to see the rest of DC. College Park has got to be cool, right? It's a college town!" You'd be thinking wrong, pardner. You'd figure that the permanent residents of a city called College Park wouldn't have too many problems with students living there. Silly you for thinking that! Someone I very much dislike once said that College Park was the worst college town he'd ever seen, and I really couldn't disagree with him. For Pete Stormare's sake, College Park has an IKEA! Do you know where IKEA builds stores? In the middle of nowhere, that's where! It's an OK place to drink and party like a college student, but why leave your own college town to do that?

Academically, Maryland is somewhat underrated in the public's eye (Rutgers too). Their undergraduate and graduate programs are quite solid, and they wouldn't hurt the Big Ten's academic reputation/sense of superiority the way adding, say, Louisville would. Not as good a get in science and engineering as Georgia Tech would be, but probably just as good as an all-around choice.

All in all, Mehryland gets a solid Meh. If they help the Big Ten get the TV money, then everyone's a winner; if they don't, everyone breaks even. From a pure sporting perspective, the two schools to grab while keeping the "footprint" intact are Kansas & Oklahoma. But they don't bring the markets or the academic prestige. Besides, Oklahoma's best long-term position is to be the villain on Longhorn Network programming. Eventually all this super-conference stuff will shake out and the B1G will have sixteen teams and we'll say we've always counted in hexadecimal. As long as the Big ten can claim "Tradition!" it'll be all right.

*They are. That's why Brady Hoke is always wearing clothes that say "Michigan" and why Chris Christie's clothes have "Governor" embroidered on them. It's to help Hoke/Christie remember the role he's currently playing.

Blue

Captains courageous (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Don't say it.  Don't even say it.  You don't know, you will never know, and you will never have any way of knowing.  It was against Iowa, on Senior Day, designed in part to ruin Urban Meyer's Thanksgiving.  Stop telling yourself if only.  Stop it.  Don't let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.  Unless Denard had agreed to it, it wasn't going to happen.  So stop it.

That said, be happy with what you saw, even if it was against 2012 Iowa.  Be happy that the future looks like a rising and not a setting sun.  Be happy that Denard got to ride out of Michigan Stadium, not necessarily on the horse he was expecting to ride out on, but still got to ride out on his own terms.  Be happy that Al Borges not only has plays drawn up for every situation, but he isn't afraid to put things on film and let Ohio stew over them for a week, even without tipping everything in his hand.  Be happy that even though Fitz went down in one of the most gruesome injuries I have seen in Michigan Stadium history, Michigan has capable backups in both Thomas Rawls and...oh yeah, Denard Robinson.  In a week prior to Thanksgiving, we much much to be thankful for again once more as Michigan fans.

There are many notions that Senior Day gives you, and I spent a lot of time speaking toward the ephemeral nature of college football players just two weeks ago, so I won't recap that.  But I also was struck today by the idea that college football is so much about "What if?"  What if this, what if that?  We can talk ourselves into almost any scenario, almost any reality, ignoring the pieces of the puzzle that don't fit our hypothetical narrative, and convincing ourselves that it was just one or two moments away from being perfect.  What didn't Devin get the QB snaps in Lincoln?  What if Devin had been playing QB that night in South Bend?  What if David Brandon were not so committed to "wow" experiences and selling our souls to Saban?  (Also note, you have many fewer of these than our friends in East Lansing this year.)  But while "what if" is comfort, what is is that which must be dealt with.  Truth be told, the reality of today, outside of Fitz's injury and Jack Kennedy not getting to throw a pass, today's reality was a good one.  Not a great one all time, but a pretty darn good one.

There are no guarantees heading in to the Shoe, save one.  Team 133 will give battle to an Ohio team that is perfect in record only.  Michigan is the last chance to ruin that perfect season (well, outside of Gene Smith not accepting the bowl ban last season ruining that perfect season in a larger sense.)  Michigan will likely be the underdog, but only in a numeric sense.  This is a Game with stakes again, and the start of a new Ten Year War.  For that, we are thankful.  Game on.

Beat Ohio.
Going out with a bang. (Getty Images/Gregory Shamus)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Better Than Expected

More fun with math.

So, it started with a simple note that the @umichfootball Twitter account put out yesterday morning that Michigan is 40-13-4 all-time against Iowa.  I was stunned that Iowa and Michigan had only played 57 times all-time despite being conference mates for over 100 seasons, but more stunned to realize that Iowa has only beaten Michigan thirteen total times.  Ever.  But then I wondered if that was in line with what you would expect, so I started on the project with this question in mind:

Taking into account only B1G conference games, which team has most outperformed its overall conference winning percentage against a single opponent?  Which team has most underperformed its overall conference winning percentage?

Using the always awesome Stassen database, I culled all of the records of B1G games between 1896-2011.  I included Nebraska's eight games in the conference winning percentage calculations, but due to the ridiculously small sample size, they have been excluded from this conversation.  I did, however, include the University of Chicago in both calculations, because it's interesting.  I did not include Michigan's 1907-1916 conference interregnum, no Ohio State games prior to 1912, no Michigan State games prior to 1953, and no Penn State games prior to 1993. I then calculated the team's all-time winning percentage, calculating ties as half a win and half a loss.

So, with all of that done, I then calculated each school's winning percentage against each opponent.  I compared that to their overall winning percentage and got the following result:

The B1G team that has most outperformed its overall conference winning percentage against a single opponent is...complicated because of variable sample sizes.
The top five results are as follows:
  • Penn State vs. Indiana-36.18 percentage points better (Penn State has never lost to Indiana in B1G play.)
  • Chicago vs. Indiana-28.15 percentage points better (Indiana was glad to see the Maroons depart.)
  • Michigan State vs. Indiana-21.98 percentage points better (Oh, and yes, that's Michigan State's protected cross-division game.)
  • Minnesota vs. Chicago-21.95 percentage points better (back when Minnesota and Chicago were good at football!)
  • Northwestern vs. Indiana-21.07 percentage points better (remember, these two teams are #1 and #2 in all-time losses among FBS schools.)

So, over the longest term, it's Northwestern over Indiana.  But really, it's everybody over Indiana!  (Also, for all of Iowa's collective grousing about their issues against Northwestern, they are in the top ten of this list.)

The B1G team has most underperformed its overall conference winning percentage against a single opponent is Minnesota vs. Ohio State, 33.49 percentage points worse than their overall conference winning percentage.

Now, since this is a Michigan blog, what about the Wolverines?  Well, let's have a look, shall we?

Michigan's all-time B1G winning percentage is 71.33%, which is just a shade behind Ohio State's 71.66% for first place all-time in the conference (this does not take into account Ohio's vacated games in 2010, if you want to feel better about yourself, since Michigan moves back into first place when it does..)

When we look at the chart, what we see is that Michigan doesn't really have a high positive variance against anyone team, which is to say that they have handled their business against pretty much everyone historically:

So much opposing red.
What we also can see is that while Michigan has "struggled" against Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State, relative to its overall conference success, every B1G team has done worse against Michigan than their overall conference winning percentage.  In a fit of ironic pique, Northwestern actually has the lowest variance because they are so bad overall in conference that even performing poorly against Michigan doesn't hurt them that much because they don't  have as far to fall.  Sparty's relatively strong performance against Michigan puts them in second, and when Ohio State is the greatest variance game for Michigan, Ohio's variance is more negative than Michigan's when compared side by side.  Also, Indiana football is still terrible.

The ten most positive and most negative variance comparisons, by the way:
Penn State's still relatively small sample size helps them (and hurts them a little too.)
If you'd like to see all of the data (to play with it), please drop me a line, and I will pass it along.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hubris

"In the future, if you're wondering, jumping up and down when your quarterback was hit late out of bounds is when decided to kick your ass." --My Brady Hoke internal monologue  (GIF by the incomparable Timothy Burke)
I like to believe that there are football gods, a sub-executive level group of functionaries below the big guy who oversee the hopes and prayers of football fans everywhere, because there's a lot of traffic in that area, but it's not particularly important in the grand scheme.  They can't answer all of the prayers all of the time, because everything would end in a tie, but I like to think they reward humility and punish hubris.  So while some of you may rightfully argue that Roy Roundtree's amazing catch to put Bear Gibbons in position to tie the game was the moment you know Michigan was going to win, I knew it was the moment shown above, when Pat Fitzgerald decided to celebrate the flag that Brennan Beyer just drew for roughing the quarterback, keeping a Northwestern drive alive, a drive upon which they would go on to score and take the lead.

Now, buoyed by the improbability of Dennis Norfleet's "Whoops, out of blockers this way, let's reverse field, even though that never works" kick return my faith was perhaps shaken somewhat by the unfortunate interception Devin Gardner threw while trying to hit Devin Funchess on a downfield throw (I wonder if Funchess even knew the DB was going to jump the route?).  It was further shaken by the marginal spot and subsequent support for said spot on the replay review, well, you just have to hold fast that the football gods act in their own ways.

When Northwestern decided to punt, which I can support, especially if you're on the 49 and you angle it, I thought that it would be tough sledding, but it still could happen, because I just couldn't see the football gods getting behind cheering like a madman for a penalty.  So Jeremy Gallon's punt return to the Michigan 38, the Wolverines got down to business.

Some quick math told me that Michigan was going to need about 27-35 yards to have a shot at a game tying field goal from Brendan Gibbons, anything beyond that was going to be gravy.

So when Devin Gardner set up to do this (5:00 mark):

I took it as my sign that the football gods had rendered their verdict on Mr. Fitzgerald's antics.
(Side note: You can't see it in the game footage, I only caught it because I am on the Northwestern bench side of the field, but Devin Funchess was scrambling to get off the field before the spike and he literally does a dive/roll on to the Michigan sideline like he's an action hero fleeing an explosion.  Commitment to not screwing up!)  Moments later, Brendan Gibbons made his 11th straight field goal and we were off to overtime.  Sure, Michigan lost the toss, because that would have made it too easy.  But another great catch by Roundtree, some hard running by Fitzgerald Toussaint, and a great bootleg on a run pass/option by Devin Gardner, and a Bear Gibbons extra point later and Michigan was up seven.  Still gotta make the stops, something that really hadn't been going the defense's way on this day.  But a Mattison adjustment in formation, one of the loudest crowds I've heard in Big House history (Coulter was having serious trouble audibling.  You could tell when Kovacs said "We're gonna play that way and pointed at the student section, he knew what he wanted to do), and all of the sudden Kenny Demens is free in the middle and is stopping the ball carrier and Michigan wins, Northwestern loses, and all is right in the football universe.

Hokeface (also by Timothy Burke)
It wasn't a perfect day.  The Toussaint fumble was maddening, but a great play by the Wildcat defense. Special K remembered where "In The Big House" was on his hard drive.  There weren't enough holes in the offensive line to run through, things of this ilk.

But it was sunny, warmish for a November day.  Al Wistert got a tremendous ovation from the Michigan Stadium crowd, the MMB put on a funny show, Devin Gardner continued to look good, Roy Roundtree remembered that he's a heck of a receiver, Gibbons is still money, and in the end, Michigan was victorious,   Really, that's more than we should be able to ask for from the football gods.  After all, you need to stay humble.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Evanescent

"Jug security is always at a premium." --Brady Hoke, 2011 (AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid)
I have a very dear friend from my quiz bowl days who works in the national sporting media.  He's a B1G fan as a he's a Northwestern alumnus and in our discussions about college football, he said something that I agree with wholeheartedly:

"College football is almost always about the past, and about the future.  It is rarely about the present."

He's right.  Because college football stands aside baseball as one of the two sports in American life with over an actual century of history and relevance, its history is a grand part of its mass appeal.  Michigan's connection to Fritz Crisler, 75 years ago, is seen in the helmet design it wears to this day.  Michigan's connection to Fielding Yost is seen today in the Little Brown Jug. A century after it was first competed for in 1909, it's still a prize to be won, to be defended, to be celebrated.  On the flip side of that, college football's obsession with recruiting, with who's next, with what is on the horizon, with projecting what can be, the future is bright, especially because in the depths of a lousy season, there's always next year.

I think one of the hardest things college football fans have to reconcile is the ephemeral nature of players.  When you consider depth charts, redshirting, and the like, we may get about three years with them at most, four if we're really lucky.  We get to know them, we come to appreciate them for what they can do, and then, like that, as quickly as they came, they are gone, leaving only memories, and occasionally questions of what might have been.

We knew Denard was leaving us, just as in 2007, we knew that Mike Hart, Chad Henne, and Jake Long were leaving us.  We had high hopes for these senior years, but we knew there would be challenges.  2007 went in a bizarre direction, obviously, but what makes me sad about it is not even "The Horror" or "Sucks Unlimited".  No, it's seeing Mike Hart in a toque against Illinois, or Mallett playing against Wisconsin because Henne couldn't go.  We lost out on a last great season of Henne and Hart because they were injured, and even the great ride off in to the Florida sunset of that Citrus Bowl win still left "what might have been."

So that brings us to a cold November day in Minneapolis, where, for the first time in 11 trips, that actually mattered against the Gophers.  Denard was getting better all week, improving, and would be good to go today.  Except for the part where he wasn't and that was "optimism" on Coach Hoke's part (wishful thinking, or "signals intelligence" ploy are also acceptable.) and Denard gave way to Devin Gardner.  You know, former 5-star quarterback recruit Devin Gardner.  Unfortunately, rust never sleeps, and Devin's first quarter made Michigan fans nervous that we were in for another long day.  And then,

3rd and 17 at MINN 45Devin Gardner pass complete to Drew Dileo for 45 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

Those words do not do justice to what Devin Gardner did there, and suddenly, when he launched the ball, and the camera panned over to find Drew Dileo standing wide open in the end zone, watching "The Threat" looking it in and suddenly like that, the game was tied, and Michigan never looked back.  Thomas Rawls ran for a score, a beautiful Gardner pass to a leaping Jeremy Gallon, and a nifty Fitzgerald Toussaint touchdown run later, Michigan kept the Jug and became bowl eligible.

This was pretty cool by Fitz.  (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Before Jon Falk had even unlocked the equipment case that carries the Jug, there was already discussion about feeling better about next year, about a potential quarterback competition in next fall's camp (with a quarterback that isn't even on campus yet.), about what this means for the future. This is not unreasonable behavior, but it also is the one thing that I so hate about college football.  Michigan's three losses mean we're already looking forward to next year with three games still to go (and at that point, had Michigan State beaten Nebraska, still a chance at playing in Pasadena.  Probably shouldn't have hitched our wagon to that star.  Nope.)  It's the nature of the beast.  It saddens me though, because in doing so, we're almost fast forwarding through the end of Denard's career, and it paints in stark reality just how ephemeral, just how fleeting a college football career truly is.

The one positive for us, I suppose, is that Denard will move from the future to history, where he'll be revered in song and story for future generations, where the interceptions will be overlooked in favor of the dynamic runs, this program and its history will shortly become the care of another team.  To them and their posterity will we commit our future.  We will stand at the intersection of past and future and we will hope that the former is instructive of the latter. No time like the present to understand the future.

Bullet pointy things:

  • I like Jerry Kill (native Kansan, coached at my dad's alma mater of Pittsburg State), but man, kicking the 19 yard field goal to make it 28-13 with 5:17 to go in the fourth was a poor choice.  I appreciate the notion of bringing yourself within two scores, but a touchdown and extra point makes it an 11 point game, and if you don't make it, you have a reasonably defensive position.
  • That said, the most Minnesota thing was being offside when Brendan Gibbons missing the extra point, giving him another shot at it.  As someone on Twitter suggested, too much Scandinavian heritage in the Minnesota crowd, not enough brunettes.
  • Gardner really spread the ball around today, but the fact that Gallon, Dileo, and Roundtree all had a long catch of 45 yards or more is kind of neat.  Spread the ball around, go long when you need to do so.  If that's the Borges game plan, I can live with that.
  • Hagerup looked a little shaky today.  I hope we can go back to find the booming Hagerup in the next couple of weeks.
  • Getting ahead of this for next week: On November 10, Michigan's Fitzgerald Toussaint faces a team coached by Pat Fitzgerald.
  • The officiating was interesting, but honestly, it all evened out.  The pass interference calls were sketchy, sure, but they were sketchy both ways.  34 of Minnesota's 69 yards on their drive in the middle of the fourth quarter came on PI calls.
  • And now, to completely undermine my entire post, does anyone think, for a moment, that with bowl practices, spring ball, and fall camp, in addition to anything else he does on his own, that Devin Gardner won't be in fantastic shape to be the starter next season?   He's still a little raw, but practice makes perfect, right? The five 2013 road games aren't of the monolithic difficulty that the 2012 road/neutral slate was on paper (at Connecticut, at Penn State, at Michigan State, at Northwestern, at Iowa).  Challenging, for sure, (the November slate is a bit of a nightmare) but provided the O-line comes together, there could be good things to come.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Hoover Street Rag's Top 25 Or So: But We're Using Our Whole Ass

It’s time for a new installment of Hoover Street Rag’s college football rankings. As always, the teams are ranked according to the logic and values of Tom Scocca's weekly Deadspin column, no matter how bizarre or contradictory they may be. We’re making this quick, after a brief pause to wonder how Scocca's writing could decline so quickly after he left Slate.

1. Alaska (0-0)

Undefeated in football, as they are every year.

2. Indiana (3-5)

Some people consider the most horrifying thing about the Big Ten this year is the fact that Indiana still controls its own destiny for a trip to the Rose Bowl. Those people forget the more horrifying thing that makes this possible.

3. McMaster (8-0)

As the highest-ranked team in Canadian Interuniversity Sport football, McMaster is in the driver's seat to win college football's only truly legitimate national championship, provided they can pass through four rounds of playoffs. Canada: it's like a whole other country up there.

4. North Dakota State (7-1)

Similarly, NDSU is back in the driver's seat to defend their national championship, as a loss by Eastern Washington and a 3OT squeaker by Georgia Southern jumped them back to #1 in The Sports Network FCS poll.

5. OHIO! (8-1)

They may not control their own destiny in the MAC East, but they produced a legendary GIF on Thursday, and, in the long run, that's far more important.

6. David Roher

Proved it's still possible to write a decent article on Deadspin. Come back, Katie!

7. [vacant]

The state of mind I tried to reach before writing this post.