Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Post-New Year's bowlthoughts

Wait, so did they overturn the Gatorade cooler or just a rain bucket they had sitting around?

The Auburn perspective. I'm not sure I really have that much to add about the GMAC Bowl, to be honest. For starters, I missed the first half: for the first time in my two-plus years with Comcast Digital, my cable "went out," as all I had were pixelated garbled images that would become clear just long enough to get a score or a freeze frame of some kind, then go back to gibberish-visuals again. Oh, and no audio. So nice timing on that, Comcast.

But even after enjoying the second half, what's there to add about that performance? I saw the same thing all of you saw: an exceedingly well-prepared, well-coached team that knew exactly what it what it wanted to do and went out there and and did it, weather and opposing defense and increasingly large lead be damned. And while Malzahn's Golden Hurricane schemes are about as smashmouth as I am internationally famous--anyone spot any lumbering, mouth-smashin' fullbacks out there?--but Tulsa was nonetheless every bit as committed, creative, and effective in the running game as we've been promised. If Malzahn had put together the sort of offense that was merely really good against the likes of Ball St., there'd be cause for concern as to how well it would translate to Auburn. But the Golden Hurricane aren't just really good against teams like this: they pulverize them. Malzahn pulls them apart, play by play, call by call. The result is 643 yards and no turnovers or penalties in a game bisected by a freaking monsoon. That's the sort of thing you just don't manage unless the guy pulling the strings really, really knows what he's doing.

But one other point I do want to make about Malzahn, and it goes back to that Gatorade bath pictured at the top. I've read more than a few 'Bama fans claim that Malzahn's a troublemaker, that he was the ringmaster behind that three-ring circus in Fayetteville, and that his presence is going to undermine Chizik's efforts to lead a unified Auburn team.

There are a hundred different arguments against this version of Malzahn's Hog tenure--that the overwhelming majority of Arkansas fans don't see it that way is one, and that someone so hypothetically willing to stab his employers in the back hasn't said a single negative word in public about said employers afterward is another--but I think that Gatorade dumping might be the best one. For a guy who supposedly only cares about himself, his players sure do seem to care about him, don't they? For an allegedly cancerous glory-hog, his current head coach sure seems happy with him (and for him), huh? Maybe I'm wrong, but I think Auburn's getting both a terrific offensive mind and a decent guy.

So apologies, folks, but there's only one negative about the Malzahn hire, and that's the wear-and-tear on the defense. And hey, when things are clicking as well as they were last night--time-of-possession 35:40 to 24:20 in Tulsa's favor--maybe even that's not as much of an issue.

The other part of it. There's been one other bowl game since New Year's Auburn fans might have taken an unusual level of interest in, and that was the International Bowl, where we could get a good look at the One That Could Have Been. And what that look told us was ... well, there's no way to say this without it sounding like I'm trying to make a retroactive defense for the previously indefensible Chizik hire, but Gill's not ready to move up.

That's not to success his coaching career isn't going to continue being a smashing success. Both times I've seen his teams play they've been energetic, opportunistic, virtually mistake-free. They've been ready to play. Overall, I would certainly call them well-coached. But the X's and O's just aren't there. Gill's offense--particularly when contrasted with the onslaught of looks and wrinkles offered by the likes of Tulsa, Utah, Ole Miss, etc.--seems awfully pedestrian, mostly straightforward runs and short and medium pass routes UConn was all over from start to finish. When talent levels are similar, having a team particularly well-prepared in a simpler scheme can work and work well, as the MAC will tell you. But when that same team faces a team with a substantially greater talent level--as the Bulls did when going up against UConn--it's not enough. Combine the Bulls' toothlessness with a total inability to slow down to Donald Brown on defense, and you're looking at a staggering 3.6 yards-per-play deficit--and a 45-7-type mauling if the Huskies don't turn the ball over five times in the first half, which led to all 20 Bull points.

UConn's a good and perhaps underrated team, and Buffalo didn't play their absolute best game, certainly, but for this one game at least Gill didn't show that he was a coach capable of closing the talent gap we all know Auburn will have to contend with vs. our rivals--at least on offense--for another couple of years. I wish Gill the best and we won't be able to accurately grade Auburn's head coaching decision for a long time, but after seeing what Chizik had in mind for Auburn's staff, it's hard to think today, at this moment, that Auburn made the wrong choice in passing him over.

A prayer for the Big 10. Oh, Jim Delany. As an avowed attacker of the SEC's academics (not that they're great, but that's our business) and staunch anti-playoff advocate, it ought to so much fun to watch you squirm as your conference goes down in the flames of a 1-6 bowl record and continued national irrelevance.

But between surrounding myself with friends-who-are-Michigan-fans and your admirable honesty in admitting that your league just doesn't seem to be as full of good teams as other conferences are, I'll cop to having some sympathy for your and your embattled conference. And in fact, I'll even put forth an argument on its behalf: the Big 10 hasn't been good this bowl season, but it hasn't been as bad as college football fans might think.

For starters, there's the against-the-spread record, which is 3-4. Northwestern didn't win, Ohio St. didn't win ... but both played outstanding ball games against superior Big 12 opponents and fell in overtime and the final 10 seconds, respectively. "1-6" doesn't do justice to those accomplishments. There's the 8-ball of geography the Big 10 will always be behind, since people don't generally play bowl games in the Midwest and the ones they do--Motor City, International--had to go with other teams this year. And then there's the USC factor--the last seven years, the Trojans have faced six non-Vince Young-led teams in bowl games, and they've crushed every single one of them. Sure, five of them were Big 10 teams, but I've rarely gotten the feeling that--in Pasadena, particularly--the teams of any other conference would have had much better of a shot. (Certain exception from 2004, uh, excepted.)

So things are bad, Jim Delany, yes. But not as bad as they could be. Your league isn't an out-and-out fraud.

Like, say ... the Big 12, alleged best conference in America, now a whopping 2-4 ATS with the only wins Kansas's over reeling Minnesota and Nebraska's over those noted big-game overachievers at Clemson. The Big 12 South, in particular, is now 0-3 with two straight-up-losses despite having been favored by at least a field goal in all three.

And hey, remember that whole "Big 12 offense or SEC defense" question that got repeated ad nauseum during the season? I guess the definitive returns on that won't come in until tomorrow night, but at the moment, Texas Tech, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma St. have all been held well under their season averages. Meanwhile, LSU, Kentucky, Georgia, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss have all held their opponents well under their season averages. There's been one head-to-head meeting of Big 12 offense and SEC defense in the Cotton Bowl ... and only a bevy of Ole Miss mistakes in the red zone kept it from being a three-touchdown curb-stomping.

So I know good blogs aren't supposed to be banging the conference drum nearly so hard, but ... the answer to that question, at least entering the national championship game, is pretty clearly "SEC defense."

What the hell, MAC? The conference got a record five teams into the bowl field this year. Maybe next year we can find another couple of C-USA or Sun Belt teams to show up instead? The MAC not only went an unsightly 0-5 straight up, they went a remarkable 0-5 ATS, and it's not like they were playing sacrifical lambs to BCS teams, either: Connecticut was the only BCS team the MAC faced, and they got them in Buffalo's back yard. The other ATS victors over the MAC? Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Florida Atlantic, and Rice. In a word: yikes.

Broadcast AAAARRRGGGHHH. One last thing: if I wasn't also a fan of soccer, a sport long brutalized by American sports television producers in horrible and unspeakable ways, I would probably weep for the quality of bowl coverage this year.

It's not just Fox, trust me, though Fox is obviously every bit as wretched as every single person I've ever spoken to or read on the subject says they are. (An extreme close-up of the free safety's face as the ball is snapped! Brilliant!) ESPN has also been a disgrace the last couple of weeks, though. Start with the continued employment of Paul Maguire, who has never added anything to any broadcast ever that I'm aware of, and in fact routinely takes things away from the broadcast. For instance, during the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, he opined that that Tech returner who muffed a punt on the 17 or so should "never have tried to catch that ball." This was, simply, flat wrong--with the punt a mile high and a bevy of LSU coverage members standing around, letting the ball drop would have meant a sure loss of 10-15 yards of field position and his team backed up inside the 10. The problem's not the decision to catch the ball, which is mandatory in that situation--it's that he just did a horrible job of it.

Add that to the thousand other paper cuts ESPN has inflicted on us over the past couple of weeks, and I'm not going to say I'm happy the season ends tomorrow. I'm the very opposite of happy. But at least I won't have to see my sport so cruelly mangled in this fashion any longer.


Joshua said...

Thanks for breakdown on the Tulsa game, or at least what you were able to observe of it. I agree that Malzahn appears to have offensive ingenuity, and is generally well-liked by the coaches who have worked with him at Tulsa, and the entire media who worked around him at Arkansas. I don't get the Bamuh averment that Malzahn was the root of the problem at UA. I believe it was simply the wrong situation, and personality conflicts with the Nutt.
Regardless, I am overly pleased with the hires of Malzahn and Taylor. Take care,

wjlanesr said...

I concur with your assessment on all points. As for the root of the problem in Swineland, it was probably more about timing and personality issues. War Eagle.

J.M. said...

The Fox coverage of the Texas-Ohio State game was horr-i-ble. And what was going on with the extreme closeups on the Gatorade logo on the coolers at one point in the game? Bleeeeeaaaagggh! Soon, soon it will be out of Fox's hands.