The Electric Commentary

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Weather, The Big Ten

In the Midwest, people freak out about "playing games at Lambeau/Soldier in December." And indeed, when it's really cold out it is quite difficult to play football, and to execute with the same nuance as in a climate-controlled dome.

For a long time this lead to the "Black-and-Blue" style of the NFC North. Play defense, run the ball. Don't make mistakes. Unfortunately, there is a problem with this approach, and it has now been exploited by college teams in nicer climates.

As it turns out, you win by passing. I know the old cliche is that you win by running, but it's not true. You get ahead with passing, and then you run down time with running. Running will help you keep a lead, but if you can't pass, you can't win. The Outsiders have written articles to this effect using their newfangled computers, but I can't find them.) The strongest evidence for this theory is that yards/pass is the stat that most closely correlates with offensive success. Rushing is a nice bonus, but not essential.

There's another bogus cliche out there that claims that the SEC has "better athletes" and "more speed" than the Big Ten. This, also, is false. As if the Southern portion of the US, for some reason, has steroids in the water supply. Big Ten teams frequently employ the fastest athletes in the country. Wisconsin's WR and RB corps frequently features world class track stars (Michael Bennett, for instance), and this is not unique to my alma mater. Remember When Tim Dwight went back to Iowa for an extra year to run track?

So why is the SEC better? As it turns out, it's all about style, and that style is dictated by the weather.

Because Big Ten schools feel that they must run the ball to win, they recruit run-blocking offensive linemen, and run-stopping defenses. Even in college, where the players are not paid, you still have limited resources with which to recruit players, and you can't recruit for every possibility. Competing in the Big Ten generally requires a run-stuffing defense, and this leaves you open to the scourge of the Big Ten, the Spread Offense.

To see the effects of the Spread Offense on the Big Ten, you only need to look within the Big Ten at what was formerly one of the Big Ten's worst programs; Northwestern.

Since Northwestern has run the spread they've been consistently over .500 and have appeared in a Rose Bowl. This despite the fact that they are smaller, have higher academic standards, and play in a high school stadium that tends to be filled with at least 2/3 opposing fans.

There is no reason that Northwestern should be anything other than a Big Ten door mat, but they're always around, and always pesky. When the Big Ten runs into spread teams (or pro-style teams that emphasize the pass), they struggle. (See: Appalachian State.)

Passing efficiently will always make your offense better, but there is also a lot of evidence that it is easier to pass in college than in the pros, and that the gains from doing so are greater. Most college teams will not be able to recruit enough defensive backs to contend with a team that concentrates on passing. Teams that find themselves on the wrong end of these mismatches tend to get embarrassed.

You can also see this in small school gimmick offenses throughout the country, like Hawaii and Boise State. Just 20 years ago the Option or Wishbone was the small school gimmick offense of choice, but no longer.

This is a bit of a Moneyball moment. Moneyball is not about how teams should walk and hit HRs, it's about how Billy Beane found inefficiencies in the market for baseball players and exploited them to turn a low-payroll team into a consistent contender. What is striking about Moneyball, however, is that the most important offensive skill (not making outs) was undervalued. Here too, in the Big Ten, it appears that passing, the most valuable offensive skill is undervalued.

And this is mostly due to weather. But it doesn't have to be this way. It's actually not that hard to pass in bad weather. Sometimes is can be easier if the field is slick. In fact, the man who holds most NFL passing records has probably played more bad weather games than any other QB.

I believer that if one of the talent-rich Big Ten teams moved to a pass-happy offense (and recruited a good passing QB) that they would dominate the Big Ten - for a while. And when everyone else caught up, the league would be better for it.

(And yes, Joe Tiller does this, but Purdue isn't exactly a power. Plus, when Joe Tiller has had good QBs he has been successful.)

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