Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Great Expectations

  The first ever four team college football playoff took place last week. After a close first half, the defending champion Florida State Seminoles (the only undefeated team this year) self-destructed and lost their first game in over two years to the Oregon Ducks while the Ohio State Buckeyes came back from a 21-6 hole to upset perennial college football power Alabama.

  While the Ducks and Buckeyes were the winners on the field I believe the biggest winner was the playoff selection committee’s decision to jump the Buckeyes from the sixth seed and out of the playoffs to the fourth and final playoff spot over Big 12 co-champions Baylor and TCU in the last week of deliberations. The committee said that their decision was swayed by Ohio States 59-0 win over 13th ranked Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship game while TCU was throttling perennial loser Iowa State 55-3 and Baylor was beating 9th ranked Kansas State 38-27.

  When the final playoff seedings were announced the playoff committee was widely chided for picking a big name team like Ohio State from the inferior Big 10 conference and bypassing the worthier Big 12 co-champs. The complaining only grew when TCU walloped 9th ranked Ole Miss (the only team to beat the top seeded Alabama Crimson Tide) 42-3 in the Peach Bowl. But Ohio State’s victory has vindicated the playoff selection committee and given them credibility for next year although I doubt they will ever have the courage to deny an undefeated team like Florida State that wins a lot of close games against inferior competition a spot in the playoffs.

  I felt the biggest surprise of the college football offseason was the firing of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. Pelini was the Nebraska coach from 2008 through 2014 and had never won less than nine games in a season (you can see his record here). The issue some Nebraska fans and athletic director Shawn Eichorst had was that Pelini had never won more than ten games in a season (he won ten games three times) or captured a conference championship (he did win three division championships and lost three conference title games). Pelini has been exceptionally crude at times and some of his more vulgar tirades (like this one) have caused the University great embarrassment but he seemed to be growing into the job and at age 47 could have been the coach for decades to come.

  In firing Pelini (who was under contract through 2019), Eichorst said "We weren't good enough in the games that mattered." and when asked about the criteria for a new coach said "We're going to get it right." Less than a week later Eichorst hired Oregon State University coach Mike Riley as the new Nebraska head coach. Riley is 61 years old and had coached the Beavers for 14 years since 1997 (taking a few years off to coach the San Diego Chargers). In hiring Riley Eichorst said "I have no doubt that Mike will assemble a tremendous staff and lead our student-athletes to win Big Ten titles and compete for national championships in the years ahead." This intrigued me so I decided to look at the record (you can too by clicking here). In his 14 years as a head coach at Oregon State, Riley has won zero Pac-10 or Pac-12 titles, has won nine games twice and ten games once and has never finished a season ranked higher than 20 (Pelini’s Cornhuskers were ranked 14 in 2009 but otherwise also has never finished a season ranked higher than 20).

  Riley has never been accused of the kind of vulgar rants Pelini (here is Pelini's classic farewell speech to his players) has been recorded making but he hasn’t won as much as Pelini either. So it seems to me that Eichorst has gotten himself an older, cheaper ($2.7 million vs. $3.1 million), more refined version of Pelini but not a more accomplished version. There is nothing in Riley’s record to make me think he will lead the Cornhuskers to Big 10 or national championships.

  It wasn’t that Pelini didn’t win – Pelini didn’t win enough. Nebraska won national championships in 1970 and 1971 under Bob Devaney and three from 1994 to 1997 under Tom Osborne. Nebraska expects to win national championships every year like they’re the Yankees or something. In my opinion the expectations are far too great but given those expectations firing Pelini is a justifiable decision. What I don’t get is If Eichorst is expecting national championships why he didn’t get a coach that has won one or come close to on or has potential to grow into a national championship coach instead of a 60+ year old coach who has a 15 year body of work that says he won’t come close to a national championship.

  One state to the east, the Iowa Hawkeyes had a promising season going. They had a 7-3 record and if they could win their remaining two games against Wisconsin and Nebraska the Hawkeyes would win their division of the Big 10 and play Ohio State for the conference crown. With both games at home the Hawkeye had reasonable expectations of winning these contests. Wisconsin took an early 19-3 over Iowa but the Hawkeyes scored two touchdowns to narrow the game to 19-17 but missed a 2-point conversion attempt to tie the score early in the fourth quarter. The teams traded touchdowns but with 5:40 left in the game Wisconsin managed to run out the clock to clinch a 26-24 win.

  With nothing to play for except pride, the Hawkeyes took a 24-7 lead against Nebraska in the third quarter only to allow three straight touchdowns to find themselves trailing 28-24. The Hawkeyes proceeded to score a touchdown with less than two minutes left to take a 31-28 lead only to allow a last second field goal by the Cornhuskers to send the game into overtime. In the overtime the Hawkeyes scored a field goal to take yet another lead but then gave up a touchdown to lose to the Cornhuskers 37-31.

When the Hawkeyes suffer, the Iowa economy suffers along with it. Instead of getting $11.90 or more for a bowl game t-shirt these '' ended up in the bargain bin.

  The 7-3 record and the hopes of a division championship had turned into 7-5 mark and an invitation to something called the TaxSlayer Bowl against a 6-6 Tennessee team. The TaxSlayer Bowl used to be the Gator Bowl until bought the naming rights and someday it will be called something else. The Hawkeyes fell behind early and often – they trailed 28-0 in the first 20 minutes, 35-7 at halftime, and 42-7 in the second half before some late game ‘pity’ touchdowns led to fairly respectable 45-28 final score.

  There are plenty of Hawkeye voices calling for Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz to be fired but Iowa athletic director Gary Barta isn't among them. Before the bowl fiasco Barta said finishing 7-5 wasn’t acceptable and that winning at Iowa is measured by championships but after the bowl game Barta said “what I do see are student-athletes who are 100 percent behind their coach. I see a group of coaches are still behind each other and that's important. Because I've been around programs where a coach loses a team, and that's not the case at Iowa”. There wasn’t even a hint of the athletic director newspeak for getting ready to replace a coach (‘We’ll evaluate everything after the season’, ‘No one’s job is safe’, ‘We’re always evaluating our options’).

  While Bo Pelini has won nine or ten games in each of his seven seasons and lost his job, Ferentz has won nine games or more games only five times in his 16 seasons (coaching record here) and last won none games in 2009. Yet he still has his job. Why is Barta so patient as opposed to Eichorst? One reason is Ferentz has accomplished things Pelini hasn’t – Iowa was co-champion of the Big 10 twice, finished the season ranked in the top 10 four times, had two 11 win season, and played in two Orange Bowls. While Ferentz’s lows are lower his highs are also higher than Pelini’s Nebraska squads.

  Iowa’s expectations for its football program are to contend for the conference championship and occasionally have a big season and that is what Ferentz has delivered. If he goes another three of four years without a ten win season or division championship then he will probably be replaced for not meeting the program’s expectations. Nebraska seemingly has the expectation of winning (not contending for) conference championships and contending and occasionally winning national championships and Pelini lost his job for not coming close to those expectations. I have the feeling that Pelini’s vulgar tirades are the real reason he was let go and not meeting the programs ‘expectations’ was the excuse. When Ohio State wanted to get back on the national radar they hired Urban Meyer, a coach with a track record of winning. Alabama did the same with Nick Saban. Eichorst quickly hired a coach with a long term record of mediocre results. Either Eichorst is the smartest guy in the room or he really doesn’t have championship expectations after all.

  Speaking of expectations, I can't say I met my expectations for last week's playoff bets. My reasoning was sound but my money management left much to be desired. I successfully picked Carolina to win, Baltimore and Pittsburgh to score more than 46.5 points (they scored 47), and the Colts to beat the Bengals by more than four points. Those three bets put me up $300 but I lost $110 mythical dollars on my 25-1 bet of the Steelers winning the Super Bowl and lost my double bet of $220 on the Lions and Cowboys going over 48.5 points when the Lions failed to get a winning touchdown in the last three minutes. So heading into week 2 I’m down $30 despite winning 3 of my 5 picks. By contrast, my guest prognosticator Shawn Pavlik picked all the favorites and is only down $20. I clearly have some catching up to do with this week’s picks using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page and as usual for entertainment purposes only.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
I’ve never been able to figure out this Baltimore Ravens team so I won’t start trying now. The Patriots have been the best team in the AFC this year but the Ravens have a knack of winning on the road including their 28-13 win over the Patriots in the 2013 AFC championship game. I think the under 20 degree weather will keep scoring down so I’ll bet $110 to win $100 that the total score will be under 47.5 points.

Carolina Panthers vs Seattle Seahawks
The Panthers have played the Seahawks the last three years, all in Carolina. In 2012 the Seahawks won 16-12. In 2013 the final score was Seattle 12 and Carolina 7. Seattle won again this year 13-9. Even though all three games were within 5 points with and none of the three games saw 30 points scored Seattle is favored by 10.5 points with the over under at 40. It would seem like a no-brainer to pick the Panthers with the points or take the under. The big differences are that this game is in Seattle and it’s a playoff game. I think Seattle will score more than 40 points all by themselves and will bet $110 to win $100 on the over.

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
The Cowboys barely beat the Lions at home last week and will now head to Green Bay to play the rested Packers. I expect the Packers to win easily but the Cowboys have that 'team of destiny aura' that makes me hesitant to give the 7 points or give 3-1 odds on the money line. The temperature is predicted to be 15 degrees which makes the over under line of 53 a little high for my tastes so I’ll bet $110 to win $100 on the under.

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
The Broncos and especially Peyton Manning haven’t played especially well the past few weeks of the season but I feel the week off will rejuvenate Manning for at least one week and will bet $110 to win $100 that the Broncos will be able to beat the gritty but mistake prone Colts by more than the seven point spread.