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02 Mar 2009

One Foot Inbounds: Meet The New Boss

by Robert Weintraub

(Ed. Note: Today we welcome our new college football columnist, Robert Weintraub. You've probably seen Robert's writing in places like Deadspin, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal. He'll be taking over the Monday college football wrap-up and contributing to our NFL coverage as well, and he brings us two things we didn't have before: a college football writer based in the South, and a real-life Cincinnati Bengals fan. I want to thank everyone who applied for the college football opening. We had lots of good applications, so don't be surprised if you see some material from a few of those other people in the future. -- Aaron Schatz)

Bryce Brown may still be channeling Hamlet while trying to decide where to tote the rock and occasionally attend class nest season, but for most people, recruiting season ended with National Signing Day. Most fans here in the South treat NSD as a religious holiday. I look forward to it myself, but not for the same reasons as the locals. I cannot wait for the miasma of uninformed speculation and misplaced bragging to end. If I had a nickel for every fan that raised a glass of improperly distilled liquor to toast his team's "success" in bribing multiple prize sows to don the colors of ol' State U, based on nothing more than supposed potential and games that hardly anyone saw, I could ride out this recession in high style, rather than slurping up writing gigs with the enthusiasm of a starving anteater.

That's my way of saying, welcome to my first entry as Football Outsiders' new college football columnist!

Yes, Russell Levine has decided to spend more time with his beloved pucks, and who can blame him given the relative popularity of college football versus hockey? So Aaron has given me the gig, and I will be writing about the Varsity Letter version of pigskin with a mandate to leave the Gobi Desert-dry statistical analysis to others. I'll be banging out my impressions based merely on watching the games, just like all the other mopes out there you've come to loathe.

Having said that, my first column is devoted to numbers.

Simple addition, actually. The recruiting season always gets me to thinking about program strength in four-year terms, rather than the standard single-season version we're so accustomed to. So I totted up the wins of the big boy schools from 2005-2008, added a half-point for a bowl victory, a full point for a conference title, a point for a BCS bowl win, and two points for a national title. Arbitrary? A bit, sure, but overall a solid indicator of regular and post-season success.

I freely admit the limitations of this table in advance. The number of wins a program compiles over any four-year period obviously isn't a direct result of any one recruiting class. The 2002 recruits had a greater effect on the 2005 results, of course, than did the 2005 recruits. Also, redshirts and stud players who leave early skew the numbers a bit -- it stands to reason that Arkansas would have placed higher had Darren McFadden stuck around.

But just as sleep begets sleep (yes, I have an infant in the house, and repeat that mantra often), recruits beget recruits. So consistency in recruiting should mean consistent high performance on the field. And the Boise States and TCUs who have outperformed their reputations among the recruiting rankers are overdue for some respect.

So let's have some offseason fun. Here's the Four-Year Top 40 (41, actually, thanks to ties), with the 2005 Rivals Top 25 recruiting rankings:

Top College Programs, 2005-08
Rank School Points 2005 Rivals
1 USC 53 1
2 Florida 50.5 15
3 Texas 50 20
4 West Virginia 48 --
5 LSU 47 22
6 Boise State 47 --
7 Ohio State 46 12
8 Oklahoma 45.5 3
8 Virginia Tech 45.5 14
10 TCU 44 --
Rank School Points 2005 Rivals
10 Penn State 44 25
12 Georgia 43 10
13 BYU 41 --
14 BC 40.5 --
14 Utah 40.5 --
16 Tulsa 39.5 --
17 Wisconsin 39 --
18 Missouri 38.5 --
19 Texas Tech 38 --
20 Oregon 37 --
Rank School Points 2005 Rivals
21 Hawaii 36.5 --
22 California 36 9
22 Alabama 36 18
24 Rutgers 35.5 --
25 Cincinnati 35 --
25 Kansas 35 --
25 South Florida 35 --
25 Auburn 35 13
29 Central Michigan 34.5 --
29 Oregon State 34.5 --
Rank School Points 2005 Rivals
31 Louisville 34 --
31 Wake Forest 34 --
33 Houston 33.5 --
34 Florida State 33 2
35 Clemson 32.5 17
36 Georgia Tech 32 --
36 Nebraska 32 5
38 Nevada 31.5 --
38 Southern Miss 31.5 --
40 East Carolina 30.5 --
40 Michigan 30.5 6

And USC and Pete Carroll's recruiting machine is our QuadChamp!

No surprise, surely, despite the lack of a BCS trophy in Heritage Hall due to LenDale White's hitting the wrong hole on fourth-and-1 in the 2005 BCS title game and a series of in-conference letdowns since then. Florida's two titles are weighted down by mediocre odd-numbered seasons, but they still pip the Horns for the runner-up spot. The Gators are an anomaly, since 2005 was the Urban Legend's first, truncated crack at recruiting in Gainesville, and the '05 class was a bummer (Machine Gun Ronnie Wilson exemplifies the group, with only Reggie Nelson hitting it big).

West Virginia's spot at No. 4 may bring some hope to Michigan fans, given that RichRod's recruiting skills obviously paid some dividends. The Maize and Blue's 40th position on the table leaves Double-R with little place to go but up, if he can reverse the alarming talent drain in Ann Arbor.

I can hear the screaming from my living room here in SEC/ACC country -- three Mountain West teams and a WAC school in the Top 15? Now, I'm a mid-major conference defender of the highest order, so I'll brook little argument over the artifice of high placings of Mountain West and WAC teams. Anyway, I'm not saying No. 10 beats No. 20 every time out -- this table is about program strength and stability, and the ability to attract recruits. Clearly, they are doing something right in the state of Utah, and that should be acknowledged, whether or not you cling to Andre Smith's absence as the reason for the Sugar Bowl rout. Sure, TCU might drop a couple of points were they in the SEC or Big 12, but then the school's ability to attract a better grade of recruit would go up as well. (Interestingly, Boise's Sandlot Special win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago is what vaults the Broncos past the Sooners on this list.)

Ohio State is clearly elite, and would be right at the top without those BCS humiliations. While the effect of those losses on overall recruiting is negligible, would it surprise anybody if one or two studs went elsewhere as a result of the blowouts in the big games? One player who didn't: Duron Carter, this year's winner of "Best player I actually saw play and don't have to rely on scouting reports" Award. Cris' kid will wear scarlet-and-gray like the old man. He is the sort of overwhelming talent the Bucks haven't had on the perimeter since Ted Ginn skipped town, and may be the best wide receiver prospect they've had since Terry Glenn -- whoops, there I go projecting.

The Buckeyes are one of only four schools that have won double-digit games each of the past four seasons -- USC, Texas, and Virginia Tech are the others. They may not move the TV meter, but the Hokies belong in the elite program bracket. Major props have to go to the Tidewater region, an underappreciated fertile crescent of football talent, which Frank Beamer has on lockdown.

What interests me most about the table is the confirmation of the deep hole into which traditional power programs like Florida State (No. 34) and Tennessee (not even in the Top 41) have fallen. Sure, you knew they were down, but behind Houston? Rivals had the Vols ranked No. 4 in the 2005 recruiting rankings, for what it's worth, a class that basically cost Field Goal Phil Fulmer his Knoxville fiefdom. Hey, Jonathan Crompton, LaMarcus Coker -- how 'bout kicking in for that buyout? And thanks for foisting Lane Kiffin on the rest of us...

It also confirms the total domination of the "Sunshine State" schools -- only 12 to 15 cold weather schools (depending on your definition of "cold") appear on the list. I personally ascribe it more to tradition, population drift, and high school coaching salaries than to "southern speed," but whatever the reason, the nation is obviously bottom-heavy when it comes to college football.

That leads us, oddly, to the much-loathed BCS and one potential benefit of a playoff system that may be overlooked. I may live in Atlanta, but I'm all for foul-weather football, especially in HD. When was the last big college game that was played in the sort of brutal conditions that make the NFL playoffs so compelling? The bowl/BCS system is a built-in advantage for the southern schools in that they never have to play a biggie while wearing long johns and a ski mask.

Imagine a playoff system that involved some home games for the Big 10 and Big East schools. Think of watching Tim Tebow ramming for yards on a frozen field in Columbus, or Joe McKnight dancing through the sleet in Happy Valley. And imagine recruits at home watching those kinds of games, and wanting to take part in them wearing the home uniform.

Sure, the BCS title game will surely always be in the sun or under a roof, but allowing for some actual home-field advantage in postseason games might help restore some balance back to the sport. Either that, or send Mr. McSweaterVest to Washington to lobby for a heavy investment in the steel industry by the Obama Administration.

Posted by: Robert Weintraub on 02 Mar 2009

18 comments, Last at 05 Mar 2009, 9:01pm by BroncosGuy


by Danish Denver-Fan :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 1:55pm

An excellent debute, Rob'! Very entertainingly written - the language kept me reading even though I know absolutely nothing about college-ball. (I actually stopped, wondering what "Florida State" was doing all the way down there on the list, confusing them with this years BCS-champs)

by CuseFanInSoCal :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 2:02pm

I'm not a big fan of bad-weather football. When there are only twelve regular season games and no playoffs, allowing major random factors like weather to have a major impact on the game isn't a Good Thing.

Besides, with the regular season over by the end of November, hurricanes typically have more impact on college football than snow.
My new CuseFanInSoCal blog

by tuluse :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 6:36pm

I think you take football too seriously. Watching football being played in the snow is one of the most fun experiences.

by Steve (not verified) :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 7:57pm

I don't think its healthy for a Syracuse fan to take football too seriously.

by MCS :: Wed, 03/04/2009 - 9:20am

Surpassed by actually playing football in the snow.

by MCS :: Wed, 03/04/2009 - 9:26am

November in the midwest is already cold and rainy and muddy and nasty.

Football is a game that was created to be played in late fall in poor weather conditions. The weather should be part of the game. Part of what makes things interesting is trying to account for factors out of your control.

If you enjoy watching a sport with minimal weather impact, there is always baseball or Arena League football.

by Travis :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 2:20pm

When was the last big college game that was played in the sort of brutal conditions that make the NFL playoffs so compelling?

Some reasonably big bad-weather (but not brutal, I guess) games from late last year:

Michigan State (9-2) at Penn State (10-1): "cold and blustery snow".

Missouri (9-3) vs. Oklahoma (11-1), Big 12 Championship: 32 degrees, 10 mph wind. (The Kansas-Missouri game a week earlier was played in much worse conditions, but was largely meaningless.)

Florida (10-1) at Florida State (8-3): Played in a heavy downpour. (Florida State-Miami had even worse weather).

by staubach (not verified) :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 8:20pm

More significant than the Michigan St. vs. Penn State game last year was the role that weather played in the Penn State vs. Iowa game.

The wind was so strong and blustery in Iowa that it was nearly impossible to throw accurately more than 10 yards (at least for Penn State). The inability of Penn State to throw the ball in the wind cost them a close game, and ultimately a chance to play in the National Title game.

by Scott P. (not verified) :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 2:08pm

I've never seen a playoff proposal that involved teams playing at other than 'neutral' (i.e. home if you are Southern) venues. I agree it would make a playoff system more fair.

by Sophandros :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 2:41pm

I posted a sixteen team playoff on this site that called for the first three rounds to be played on campus, which would open up the possibility for, say, Ohio State to host Miami or some other warm weather team.

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

Oh, and Hail Eris!

by Unverified Telamon (not verified) :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 3:54pm

Glad to see someone recognizing what VT has done in the last few years. No one seems to remember that one Matt Ryan comeback was all that kept them out of the National Title game in 2007.

by Steve (not verified) :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 8:01pm

That and the 48-7 game against LSU.

Which just goes to show how messed up the BCS is, that a team which is smoked like that could theoretically have gotten in over the team that did the smoking, on account of having only 1 (horrible) loss instead of 2 (OT) losses.

by Jon :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 4:40pm

Matt Hayes had a similar column a few weeks ago.

I don't see much value in this kind of assessment though. What would be telling is a regression analysis.

by taxistan :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 6:31pm

Welcome aboard!!!
You're in for a tough ride as FO posters don't pull punchs.
I live in the ATL so if you are appearing somewhere locally let us know. I'll come harass you.
It's very nice to have a Southern based writer on this Yankee centric site!!!

by Yinka Double Dare :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 7:27pm

Compared to what he got from the Deadspin commenters, the commenters here should be a walk in the park for him.

by staubach (not verified) :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 8:25pm

I would love to see "home" teams in a playoff scenario. As the fan of a Big Ten school, it always seemed unfair to me when USC (and occassionally a Texas or Florida team) would have a home bowl game.

by Key19 :: Mon, 03/02/2009 - 9:46pm

Michigan St./Penn St. was a classic this year I thought. Loved watching that game. Weather made it magnificent.

Welcome to FO. I don't know if you'll even read this comment, but good luck and don't mind the occasional idiot poster *admittedly, I'm the idiot poster at times*. Overall though, this is a great site and has a great core group of writers and posters. I hope you enjoy yourself here!

P.S. Why are you a Bengals fan if you live in Atlanta? From Ohio originally?

by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Thu, 03/05/2009 - 9:01pm

Welcome, Robert.

I love the imagery from your lead. Alas, poor Maurice! I knew him Horatio; a fellow of infinite girth, of most excellent weapons.

You've done a nice job of disclosing some obvious limitations of your analysis, but you've neglected one big one: you count all wins the same, whether they occur in the SEC or such second-rate conferences as the MAC, the WAC, or the Big Ten.

Cheap shots aside, it does not take consistent top-10 classes to dominate the Mountain West, and a series of (merely) top-50 classes is death in the power conferences. To suggest that Central Michigan and Auburn have performed similarly despite the perceived gap in recruiting power is simply silly. That said, the recruiting rankings have obvious weaknesses with respect to both accuracy and precision, and they should be taken with a grain of salt. And the recent success of Utah, Boise State, et. al. is the best thing to happen in college football in recent years.

Thanks, and keep up the good work.