Sunday, December 30, 2018

On the 2018 College Football Semifinal Results

On Notre Dame vs. Clemson

  • Not that it matters, but I still stand fully behind what I said previously about Notre Dame's defense. When healthy, I think the Irish have elite players in their starting eleven. Early in the game I don't think Notre Dame was overwhelmed physically - they were holding up in man coverage and getting pressure on Trevor Lawrence. Once Julian Love and Julian Okwara (two of their three best players) got injured, the dam broke. The point here is not to make excuses for Notre Dame - I had picked Clemson to win assuming perfect health for both teams. Clemson was clearly the better team, and they had no trouble overcoming the loss of starter Dexter Lawrence. Notre Dame should have played softer coverage when they knew they were down their top corner and pass rusher. My point is, this game didn't tell me that the Irish are total frauds. It told me that they have the high-end talent you expect from a playoff team, but they still lack playoff-caliber depth. I get that it's easier and more fun to throw nuance out the window, but if that's what you're looking for then feel free to read another blog.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

On the 2018-19 College Football Postseason

On Clemson vs. Notre Dame

  • The prevailing consensus for this game seems to be that Notre Dame will be lucky if the game is still winnable at halftime. I understand the skepticism of Notre Dame. I am not as high on them as I was at the midseason - since that time, they have had to eke out close wins against Pitt and USC, and their big wins over Stanford, Virginia Tech, and Michigan look significantly less impressive. Their schedule looked daunting in the preseason, but it ended up being a really bad schedule when Stanford, VaTech, Florida State, and USC all collapsed in the same season. It is fair to say they they haven't been tested against a great or even very good opponent since week 1. And I think to some extent, Alabama's beatdown of Notre Dame in the 2013 Orange Bowl still colors the way many perceive the program. But I caution viewers against underrating this iteration of the Irish. First of all, Notre Dame mostly dominated their schedule - since Ian Book became the starter, they haven't had a single game with a post-game win expectancy below 95%. Second, this team has recruited at a higher overall level than they had in 2012, and they have high draft picks at all levels of the defense (by contrast, I don't think anyone from the 2012 team's secondary was drafted higher than round 6). Since that Alabama game, Notre Dame has beaten LSU twice, and gone blow for blow with three playoff teams (2014 Florida State, 2015 Clemson, and 2017 Georgia). Third, this is a very balanced team that can beat you in many different ways. Their offense isn't elite in any one area, which is why they don't always look like world beaters against mediocre teams. However, with Book under center, it's extremely difficult to stop them completely, and I think their offense will scale better than the spread-to-run offense they were running with Brandon Wimbush.
  • The main reason why I am simply not convinced that game will be a blowout is that I think people are overrating just how good this Clemson team really is. Don't get me wrong, Clemson is elite. They have the best freshman quarterback since Peyton Manning, along with usual stars at wide receiver and defensive line. Travis Etienne may well be the best running back in the country. Their rushing defense is historically good. However, I have major concerns about their passing defense. Their statistics look pretty good because the ACC was pitiful this year - in most games, Clemson's defensive line was able to overwhelm the past protection so badly that the opposing quarterback didn't stand a chance. I also think their games against two triple option teams (Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech) because those teams are disproportionately dependent on being efficient in the run game to be competent in the passing game, and Clemson is hard-wired to shut down power running games. However, their two toughest opponents, Texas A&M and South Carolina, were able to keep their quarterbacks upright and pick apart Clemson's shaky secondary. Had Clemson played a tougher schedule I question whether this game would be viewed as a warm-up for the national championship.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

On USC's Head Coaching Job

Update (11/25/2018): USC has decided to keep Clay Helton despite getting booed out of his home stadium after a loss to Notre Dame. Consider this post my rebuttal to Lynn Swann's explanation for his decision, as well as my thoughts on how USC should proceed if they move on from Helton in the future.

Going into USC's final two games, I predicted that they would sneak past UCLA, and that would be enough to ensure that Clay Helton would remain the head coach going into next season. Instead, USC came out flat in the second half and blew a lead against a (then) 2-8 UCLA team that was tied for last place in the conference, allowing the Bruins offense to march up and down the field while only putting up a meager 3 points of their own. Now assuming USC loses to Notre Dame (currently the point spread is Notre Dame -10.5), they will not even finish the season bowl eligible. That is simply unacceptable for a team with USC's talent. Normally, a coach can buy himself another season by firing a key member or two from his coaching staff, however Helton already played that card when he fired his offensive line coach and took over play calling responsibilities from his offensive coordinator. All of this has me feeling confident that athletic director Lynn Swann will fire Helton.

I take no joy in making this prediction. He's a man with a family, and by all accounts he is a good person. Contrary to what many USC fans might claim, Helton is a competent coach who brought some much needed stability to the program. He has recruited at a level close to Alabama and Ohio State. I actually think Helton's defenses have been pretty good - the statistics don't bear that out, but I thought there were a lot of times when their defense held stout despite being put in bad positions by the offense. You simply don't win a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 championship by dumb luck. However, a program like USC should aspire to championships, not competency, and all the evidence suggests that Clay Helton is not a championship caliber coach. If you go by S&P+, USC has gone from finishing 9th to 26th to 41st (you see a similar trend with F+, AP ranking, coaches poll ranking, etc.). Helton is 20-4 with Sam Darnold, and 10-10 without him (I will admit I have been critical of Darnold in this space, and in retrospect I probably was too harsh on him). Obviously any coach will be better with a first round pick at quarterback (although a lot of coaches would kill for Cody Kessler and J.T. Daniels), but USC has such a big recruiting advantage over its conference that it should not be that dependent on the quarterback position for success.

To me, the data tells the following story: Helton inherited a roster that was loaded at key positions, but underachieved due to poor in-game coaching and a generally loose program culture. Helton brought stability and allowed the players to thrive (although they could have thrived more if Helton had started Darnold over Max Browne). However over time Helton's players started cycling into the program, and Helton's inability to develop players (especially offensive linemen) became a bigger and bigger problem. It is possible that Helton could become a great coach one day, but it's hard to see that happening at USC. To me, he was essentially given the keys to a Ferrari before he had even driven a Honda Accord. Perhaps you could argue that Helton deserves a chance to reverse the trend. I would argue that it is better to fire him now because it would be disastrous if he can't turn it around. It is always better to move on from a coach a year early rather than a year late, and that is especially true when you consider that USC is scheduled to play Alabama to open the 2020 season.

Assuming USC fires Helton and begins a coaching search, there are going to be people who, in an effort to to sound smart, claim that USC is actually not as great of a job as it looks. This is complete nonsense. USC boasts a combination of decorated football history and access to local talent that rivals any program in the country. They have won national championships across several decades, and churned out NFL draft picks with regularity. There is no reason to think USC is anything less than a top five job. I however, think USC actually has a strong case as the program where it is easiest to win a national championship, for two reasons. First, while geography is the primary factor that drives recruiting, it should be easier to convince a kid from the Midwest or the South to come to Tinseltown than the other way around. Second, when operating at peak efficiency, USC can recruit just as well as Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Florida, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, etc. The difference is, those teams have to compete against each other, whereas none of USC's regional competitors have historically recruited at that level. The west coast has enough blue chippers to support one elite program, and USC essentially has a monopoly on those players.

The aforementioned contrarians will point to the fact that USC has had title droughts in the 80's, 90's, and 2010's as proof that USC is not an elite program. I don't buy this argument. There were times in the past 20 years when you could have made the same argument about Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan, and Florida State - does anybody doubt the championship DNA of those programs right now? There are certainly examples of programs, such as Nebraska, that truly do lose the ability to compete for championships, but I do not believe that applies to USC. They have had extended success in this millennium under Pete Carroll, they still are surrounded by plenty of blue-chip talent, and they never depended on some of the fleeting advantages (TV coverage, academic loopholes, and ahead-of-its time strength and conditioning programs) on which Nebraska did. USC's recent decline can be attributed in part to crippling NCAA sanctions, and in larger part to poor coaching hires. This is not a case of 20/20 hindsight - if USC had hired multiple well-regarded coaches who tanked once they got to USC, I would be more open to the idea that USC may be a worse job than it appears. However, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and Clay Helton were all universally criticized at the time the moves were made. Kiffin had consistently failed upwards while proving nothing as the coach of the Raiders and the Volunteers; Sarkisian was nicknamed "Seven Win Sark" during his tenure at Washington; Helton was promoted from the interim position despite going 5-4 as the interim coach and having never been considered an elite coordinator. The first two hires were naked attempts to reverse engineer the Pete Carroll, and the Helton hire was made mostly on the basis of ending USC's losing streak to UCLA. In each case, you simply cannot argue that USC hired the best coach available and still couldn't win.

I am not a USC fan (though I am not not a USC fan, but that's a story for another time), but as a college football fan I want the Trojans to be good. I think the sport is better when the national championship race is truly national, and I believe USC is the only program West of the Rockies that can compete with teams like Alabama, Ohio State, and Texas when those programs are firing on all cylinders. Teams like Washington, Oregon, and Stanford simply have never recruited at that level, and while theoretically UCLA may have the ability to become an elite program, empirical evidence says otherwise. Thus, I want to see USC hire the best possible coach. These are my thoughts on how I would approach the search.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

On the first half of the 2018 College Football Season

A few thoughts at the midpoint...

  • Before the season I took a cautious approach to projecting how well Alabama's new pieces would perform. Right now it appears that both Tua Tagovailoa and their rebuilt secondary have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. I actually don't even think their front seven has been up to the team's usual standards, but it hasn't even mattered because Alabama finally has a once in a generation quarterback to go with is embarrassment of riches at offensive line and wide receiver. It's possible that a team with elite defensive safeties or an elite pass rush can bait Tua into making reckless throws - but the fact that he played so well against Georgia leads me to believe that his production is more than a product of the defense he's faced. It's a long season, but it's hard to imagine how Alabama could have looked any more dominant through six weeks.

Friday, September 14, 2018

On week 2 of the 2018 College Football season

Some thoughts from around the country...

  • My biggest takeaway from Texas A&M's near loss to Clemson is that Jimbo Fisher might just have his quarterback in Kellen Mond. I was never a big fan of Mond last year, and it's possible he simply picked the right time to play the best game of his career, but I was really impressed by his pocket presence and his accuracy when throwing on the run.
  • I thought Clemson's secondary could have performed better, but they will improve throughout the year and in most cases their defensive line will protect them. My bigger concern coming out of this game is that their offensive line simply couldn't handle Texas A&M's front seven. I thought this would be Trevor Lawrence's breakout game, but instead they leaned on Kelly Bryant's legs to ease the burden on their line. It's fortunate that Clemson develops wideouts so well, because those guys are the ones who carried the team. I think Clemson's best shot at the national title involves letting Lawrence get his reps now so that he's ready for the playoffs; but if their offensive line doesn't play better then I worry about how they will fare against the other elite teams.
  • I'm not surprised USC lost - I thought they would struggle to start the year. But to not even score a touchdown is pitiful. I actually thought their power running game looked alright, however they couldn't generate any explosive plays in the passing game. Their offensive line doesn't appear to be any better in pass protection that it was last year; Sam Darnold struggled mightily to overcome their protection issues, and it's not fair to ask a true freshman (even one as gifted as JT Daniels) to do the same. I still think USC is the favorite to win the south division because of their talent advantage, but to not be able to even score a touchdown is troubling.
  • Stanford's opponents are stacking the box to stop Bryce Love at all costs. In both games David Shaw stubbornly tried to establish the running game until late in the second half, at which point the KJ Costello/JJ Arcega-Whiteside connection has proven to be a nightmare to defend. I think at some point Shaw's refusal to utilize his passing game early on will cost Stanford against an opponent with a better offense than USC's.
  • Notre Dame didn't look very good against Ball State, but the fact that they called so many passes leads me to believe they were trying to practice their passing game against an opponent that they new they could beat in their sleep. You would've liked to see them hold up better in pass protection, and I think Brandon Wimbush still has a ways to go as a passer, but I think the Michigan game was more indicative of how they'll look against Vanderbilt.
  • Coming into the year I thought Boise State was the best group of five team, but not a serious playoff contender. UConn isn't great, but the fact that Boise outgained them by 700(!) yards is eye-opening. They were up 41-0 at halftime, so this wasn't just a case of running up the score. To some extent that game was an outlier, but Boise sure looked like a team that can physically overwhelm the other teams in their conference. I think Brett Rypien should feast against Oklahoma State's defense, but if Boise can shut down that offense we have to consider their case for being ranked in the top 10.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

On Washington vs. Auburn

Some thoughts on the game...

  • The glass half full version of this game goes as follows: Washington lost by 6 in a de facto road game against a top 10 team. At one point they had a lead in the fourth quarter, and had the ball with a chance to win at the end. And all of this happened despite Washington missing their starting left tackle and tight end. Washington's young receivers repeatedly made plays against an SEC secondary; their defensive line controlled the second half (until the final drive). Washington should come out of this loss feeling encouraged, right? If Washington's goal is to win the Pac 12 and make the Rose Bowl, then I agree with that assessment. However, if you came into the season expecting Washington to make and be competitive in the playoff (which I did), this game had some troubling signs. For one, Washington's offensive line looked completely overwhelmed. Their two running backs had decent numbers, but I thought that had more to do with Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed finding ways to bounce it outside and make guys miss rather than the line consistently opening holes in the middle. Jake Browning was running for his life from the opening snap. I actually give Browning a lot of credit for craftily evading edge rushers when he could, and taking hit after hit after hit when he couldn't. But that's simply not a winning formula against elite teams, especially with a quarterback like Browning who depends so much on rhythm and timing rather than improvisation. Their blocking woes may disappear as soon as Trey Adams returns - he is that good - but who knows how good he'll be coming off knee and back injuries? I also was pretty disappointed by how unprepared Washington's secondary looked at the start of the game. They eventually settled in, but they didn't smother Auburn's receivers the way I expected. It's fair to point out that Jarrett Stidham is a likely first round picky. However when it comes to competing against potential playoff teams, I thought Washington's secondary would need to be their trump card. They looked alright against Auburn, but not like the the kind of elite position group that can warp the flow of games even against teams like Alabama and Ohio State.
  • If I were an Auburn fan, I would be pretty disappointed that Auburn needed to eke out a win in the fourth quarter. In the first half Auburn established a clear advantage over Washington's offensive line while Jarrett Stidham sliced up Washington's secondary. After the first quarter I thought we were headed towards a blowout. Instead, Auburn's corners couldn't cover a fade route to save their lives, and their offensive playcalling went into a shell. Auburn's offensive line didn't answer any of the questions they had coming into the season, failing to consistently open holes in the running game. I thought Washington was pretty fortunate that Auburn kept waiting until 3rd and long to throw the ball. If Auburn wants to win the SEC they have quite a bit to clean up.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

On the 2018 College Football Season

A few predictions...

On the SEC:

  • I predicted Alabama would have some drop-off on defense last year; statistically they were fine, but they clearly struggled to reload at middle linebacker. By the end of the regular season they looked as vulnerable as they've ever looked during the Saban era. They ended up being fine in the playoffs, but I think there's cause for concern again this year. They lose 3 of the their top 5 linebackers, and its top 6(!) players in the secondary. Saban's scheme depends on having corners hold up in press coverage on the outside, safeties taking away RPOs, and middle linebackers cleaning up runs that get funneled to them. Even with how well Alabama recruits, they will be asking a lot of some really green players. Of course, if Tua Tagavailoa is truly as good as he appeared to be in the national championship game, then Alabama's offense will p be good enough to carry the team. The rest of their offense is loaded, and if Saban has found his first truly elite quarterback then this offense will be unfair. But then again I thought Saban would unleash Jalen Hurts last year, but it appears Saban didn't feel comfortable making his quarterback the focal point, and it's not sure thing that he'll open up the offense for Tua. Moreover, Tua's championship game performance may well be a mirage that only occurred because Georgia wasn't prepared for him - Garrett Gilbert serves as a cautionary tale. Overall, Alabama is always a safe bet, but perhaps not as much so as in previous years.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

On the 2018 Oscars

The Pics

3 Idiotas
Fist Fight

Baby Driver
This movie has an memorable soundtrack, and some of the best set pieces in recent memory. The car chases are exhilarating enough on their own,  but the fact that they are actually choreographed to music pushes them to another level - the car is always an extension of Baby's (Ansel Elgort) eyes and ears. I obviously enjoyed Wright's signature comedic quick cuts and splashy color palate. The ending ultimately dampened the film for me. Doc's (Kevin Spacey) heel turn from being completely ruthless to having a soft spot for young love was way to sudden. The idea that he would be totally ok with his entire operation crumbling and not bear any ill will to Baby, the one that brought it all down, contradicts everything the film has told us about him up to that point. Also, if Doc's past love really gave him so much empathy for what Baby and Debora (Lily James) had, then why did he threaten to hurt Debora in order to coerce Baby into continuing to drive? As much as the other elements of the movie worked, this was a glaring flaw.