There's nothing like a Monday morning to flex one's curmudgeon muscle, so happily for me this weekend gave me a great excuse to check in on some of my favorite hobbyhorses: the lopsided, predictable nature of big-time college football, and the squib kick and ill-timed final timeout in the NFL.
We'll start with the colleges. A few weeks ago I wrote about college football being too predictable to be an interesting sport to follow. It can't be beat for stadium atmosphere, but a cluster of teams dominate the proceedings to the extent that if one or two of them lose on a particular weekend, it's news.
"College football fans will argue that when there is an upset in the top 25, it really is a big deal, rush-the-field time, excitement city," I wrote after the AP's top 25 had gone undefeated for the week. "That's true, but it's not enough. For a sport to really cook, the underdog has to have more than a snowball's chance. Otherwise you're putting up with too much non-competitiveness just to get that once-in-a-blue-moon upset rush."
I posited that a minimum acceptable level of competitiveness would be seven or eight losses being routine among the top 25 teams each week. Sure enough, the very next week, the top 25 went 18-6, including one game pitting two ranked teams, and I got a note from Chris Holm of Saginaw, Mich.
"Ask and you shall receive," he wrote. "OK, we didn't quite get you seven top-25 losses. I don't know what the future holds for the season, but it was a pretty good weekend to be watching college ball. Why not give it another chance?"
Well, I said routine, not once. That was two weeks ago. Since that moment the future has held the top 25 going 36-4. Last week they won 17 and lost four, with three of the losses coming to other top-25 teams. This weekend: 19-0. So far this season the teams ranked in the AP top 25 at game time have gone 75-10. Against unranked teams -- which is not quite four-fifths of Division I-A -- the top 25 have gone 71-6. That's right, more than a month into the season, there have been a whopping four games pitting two top-25 teams against each other.
I'm not just talking here about USC and Oklahoma and company, the few colossi that dominate the sport. This is the whole top 25, which means teams like Boise State and Louisville and Maryland, just pretty good teams, are part of the thoroughly uninteresting domination of the have-nots by the haves.
And it isn't just that the top 25 win. It's not even competitive most of the time. The average margin of victory in the ranked teams' 19 wins this weekend was 21.3 points. Even if you throw out a couple of spectacular routs, No. 15 LSU over Mississippi State 51-0 and No. 24 Louisville over North Carolina 34-0, the average margin of victory was 18.8 points. The loser finished within eight points, one score, of the winner in only two of the 19 games.
Even on the super-competitive weekend of Sept. 11, when the top 25 teams lost six times, they still outscored their opponents by an average of 16.9 points per game, and that's including No. 13 Kansas State losing by 24 to Fresno State. Eight of the 23 games that weekend were decided by eight points or fewer, which was better than normal.
By contrast, this weekend in the NFL, the average margin of victory in the 13 games played so far has been 11 points, and that's including a rare 34-point blowout by the Seahawks over the 49ers. For the season the average margin of victory is 9.2 points. That includes upsets. If we only looked at the games of the top 20 percent of teams each week, however we wanted to decide who they are, the average margin of victory would be smaller. Not quite half the games are decided by a touchdown or less.
It's apples to oranges, a little bit, comparing the top 25 to the whole NFL, but for all intents and purposes, the top 25 is college football. Sure, there were some corkers around the nation this weekend: Texas Tech outscored Kansas 20-0 in the second half to win 31-30. South Florida edged TCU 45-44 in double overtime. Arkansas State beat Louisiana-Monroe 28-21. Alabama-Birmingham scored the winning touchdown on a 30-yard run with 13 seconds left to foil a Memphis comeback 35-28.
You catch the highlights of any of these games without living in the vicinity of one of the schools? These were all Division I-A games, and one of them was a BCS conference game.
I don't know how to solve this problem. Division I-A should probably be shrunk to about 40 teams -- who, incidentally, should pay their players -- and they should play only each other. I'm not going to put much thought into the details of how this all might work because it's less likely to happen than my being elected pope, but if it did happen, I'd be a lot more interested in college football as a whole.
Of course, as pope, I'd be too busy to pay attention.
My other hobbyhorses got taken for a ride on Sunday, starting with the squib kick, which is about as effective a strategy as the prevent defense, which is to say not effective at all. It happened in a game between two teams going nowhere Sunday, but a squib played a huge part in the outcome.
The Rams had just scored a touchdown to take a 25-22 lead over the Saints with 28 seconds left. On the ensuing kickoff, they squibbed. The kick was fielded at the 25 and returned to the 42 by rookie defensive end Will Smith. That put the Saints about 30 yards from field-goal range with 24 seconds and three timeouts left. After an incompletion and two completed passes, John Carney kicked the tying field goal, and the Saints won in overtime.
The Rams evidently wanted to keep the ball away from dangerous Saints returner Michael Lewis, and on the Fox broadcast, announcers Sam Rosen and Bill Maas agreed with each other that the 42-yard line was just about where the Saints would "probably" have ended up had the Rams kicked it to Lewis.
This was true, except for the fact that it was false.
To that point in the game, Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins had kicked off four times. One had gone for a touchback, and the other three had been returned by Lewis for an average of 21.7 yards from, on average, the 4-yard line. Counting the touchback, the average result after a Rams kickoff was the Saints starting at their own 24. The best result for the Saints was a 27-yard return by Lewis to the 35.
Lewis might have run a deep kick back for a touchdown, something he's done exactly twice in 158 career returns. He might have returned it 40 yards or so to the point where the squib was returned to. He has 12 career returns of 40-plus yards -- about one every 13 tries. But the Saints would "probably" have started around their own 25. They would have had to go 45 yards to get into field-goal range, rather than about 30 yards. The Rams did a third of their work for them.
There were a few other squibs Sunday, and in fact, one was the ensuing kick by the Saints. But they kicked off with three seconds to go. As long as they stopped the Rams from returning the kickoff for a touchdown, overtime was assured. That's the only time a squib kick makes any sense.
And that leads me to another hobbyhorse: The Saints called timeout with seven seconds to go rather than letting enough time go by to make their field goal the last play of regulation. They did this to give themselves enough time for another attempt if they fumbled the snap and recovered the ball and were still in field goal range, which would have required recovering the muff and advancing it roughly back to the line of scrimmage.
This is a series of events that's insanely more unlikely than even the unlikely event of a kickoff being returned for a touchdown, which last year happened once for every 75 returned kicks or, put another way, less than once every 21 NFL games.
The whole muff, recover, return, call timeout and kick again scenario is probably even more unlikely than the other team recovering the muff, because at that point it's about a half-dozen onrushing behemoths vs. a kicker and a backup quarterback.
The Texans did the same thing in their 24-21 win over the Chiefs. Setting up for the game-winning 49-yard field-goal attempt on second down, they called timeout with seven seconds to go. Obviously, someone gave a lecture at coach camp this summer about how you should call that last timeout with seven seconds to go.
So coach Dom Capers, refusing to trust his field goal team to snap the ball without error, obeyed. If the Texans had muffed the snap, the likely result would have been first down Chiefs around their own 40, with enough time for one play. That's if the Chiefs didn't pick up the loose ball and run it in for the winning touchdown, a hapless kicker and backup QB on their heels.
The Texans made the kick, though, and then squibbed with two seconds left, which was fine.
Finally, the Jaguars got away with a dumb squib. The Jags scored the go-ahead touchdown against the Titans with nine seconds left. At that point in the game The Jaguars had kicked off only twice, with the Titans returning a deep kick 12 yards to the 17 and a short one 21 yards to the 38. The squib kick was fielded by the Titans around their 33, but they fumbled and ended up starting from their 23 with time for one play. If they'd handled the squib and returned it 10 yards or so, which is usual, they'd have been close enough for a Hail Mary try.
As pope, I'd have been pleased.
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