JaMarcus Russell Busts

April 30, 2011

NFL fans love talking about draft busts.

Ask any fan about the biggest draft busts of all-time, and he or she will rattle off Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Tony Mandarich, and Lawrence Phillips without even thinking about it. Ask who the best draft picks of all-time are and the same fan will say Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round and…um…

This shouldn’t be surprising: draft busts get way more coverage. A Google search for “best NFL draft picks” pulls up 75,000 results. “NFL draft busts” pulls up 504,000.

I’m not exactly sure why we love talking about busts. Maybe it’s because busts are easier to quantify. We could go back and forth on which team got the better end of the Eli Manning/Phillip Rivers trade in 2004, but we can all agree that the Colts made the right move in selecting Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in 1998.

Or maybe we just like picking on teams when they screw up. Sure, it’s easy to pick a Hall of Fame quarterback with the first pick of the draft – it’s the first pick! – but to destroy your team’s playoff chances for five years by screwing up the second pick? Now that’s worth talking about.

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There are two basic types of busts. The first kind are the retrospective busts. Retrospective busts are the busts that no one saw coming. Only after the pick flamed out of the league do we realize why the pick is a failure.

Ryan Leaf is an example of the retrospective bust. Every NFL fan knows this story – Manning and Leaf were neck-and-neck heading into the draft. One was going to the Colts at #1 and the other was going to the Chargers at #2.* It was pretty close to a coin flip. You know how the story ended. The Colts made the playoffs 12 of 13 years following Manning’s rookie season and won Super Bowl XLI; the Chargers drafted Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers before they returned to the playoffs and Ryan Leaf was last seen getting arrested for selling painkillers to West Texas A&M football players (Go Buffaloes!).

* Interesting sidebar that no one seems to mention any more: the Chargers traded up from #3 to #2 to pick Leaf. The Cardinals picked DE Andre Wadsworth at #3, who turned out to be almost as big of a bust as Ryan Leaf. The #4 pick? Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the Ryan Leaf pick went so wrong. Manning is the consummate professional – not only does he have a great arm, he works and studies more than anyone else. Leaf is a socially awkward crybaby who you wouldn’t trust to coach your kid’s Little League team, let alone lead an NFL team. At the time, we didn’t know that. We thought he could be just as good as Peyton Manning.

The list of these picks are endless: Brian Bosworth and Tony Mandarich (too much ‘roids), the aforementioned Wadsworth (noodles for knee ligaments), Andre Ware and David Klingler (before teams realized that being a system quarterback is a bad thing), and Heath Schuler (couldn’t throw).

These busts aren’t that fun to pick apart. Sure, we can get mad at our own general manager for these picks, but we would have made the same move. This is the same reason why no one talks about busts in the MLB draft. In every draft in every sport, teams work with incomplete information. You can’t really know if a high school senior can hit a breaking ball because no high school pitcher can throw a particularly nasty curve. NFL busts get more attention because we have three or four years of college to work with. But even with those extra years, teams miss qualities that haven’t shown up yet. It happens.

The more interesting busts are the prospective busts – the busts that you can see coming from a mile away but, for one reason or another, teams pick them anyway. I’ll call these the JaMarcus Russell busts.

I find these picks fascinating. They are the equivalent of going to a restaurant and having a large piece of cheesecake after you’ve already destroyed two plates of appetizers and a steak. You know that there’s no way you’re going to feel like living within about five minutes after you’ve eaten it…but damn it looks tasty.

JaMarcus Russell is the MVP of the JaMarcus Russell All-Star bust team.* The Raiders couldn’t help but pick him at #1. He could throw the ball farther than any other quarterback in the league and he was extremely hard to sack. Never mind that he could barely beat out Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job at LSU. Or that LSU fans spent the majority of his career ripping on him, save for the last seven games of his Tiger career. Or that he looked impressive in exactly one career college game against a decent opponent (the 2007 Sugar Bowl at home against an overrated Notre Dame team). Or that giving $32 million guaranteed to a 265-pound guy with no discernible work ethic might not be the best idea.

* Thank goodness…might have been awkward if someone else won the MVP award on his own team. Who knows how many cheeseburgers JaMarcus would have eaten in his depression.

I remember thinking that Russell was going to be a colossal bust at the time. If I was blogging back then, I would have devoted 1,500 words to the subject. Pretty much every single red flag was there, but the Raiders just couldn’t help picking that cheesecake (neither could Russell), simply because he could throw the ball really, really far.

For my own team, the Packers’ best known bust is Tony Mandarich in 1989. The Packers selected Mandarich with the second overall pick, just ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders. Those three players make the Mandarich pick exceptionally painful for Packers fans. Yet the guy was the cover story of Sports Illustrated’s NFL Draft people. Pretty much everyone thought he would be a great NFL lineman. No one knew about the detriment his massive steroid use had on him, just how abrasive his personality was, or how he much he liked drugs and alcohol.

The bigger JaMarcus Russell-style bust happened in 2001 for the Packers. The Packers traded up to the tenth pick in the draft to pick defensive end Jamal Reynolds.* More precisely, they drafted the 6’3″, 265-pound defensive end Jamal Reynolds. With that size, Reynolds would have been an excellent pick in 1978. Not so much in 2001. Predictably, he played 18 games and had 3 career sacks before exiting the league following the 2003 season.

* The Packers traded Matt Hasselbeck and the #17 pick (Steve Hutchinson) to Seattle, which worked out fairly nicely for the Seahawks.

Then there is former Husker Lawrence Phillips, who the Rams selected with the #6 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. Phillips is batshit crazy. He missed most of his final season at Nebraska because he pushed his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. He was such a terrible person that Husker fans were upset when he was allowed back on the team. To most teams, that would be a red flag. The Rams couldn’t help themselves. Unsurprisingly, he finished with almost three times as many years sentenced to prison (41) than NFL touchdowns (14).

The other reason JaMarcus Russell busts are interesting is that sometimes they work out. Donovan McNabb was booed at the 1999 NFL Draft by Eagles fans clamoring for Ricky Williams. That pick turned out pretty well for the Eagles.

I thought Josh Freeman would be a colossal bust for Tampa Bay after three unimpressive years at Kansas State. It’s still early, but it certainly looks like I am wrong about that one.

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That brings us to this year’s NFL Draft and the four quarterbacks drafted in the first 12 picks. I’m sticking with quarterbacks because this post is getting too long already. And if you think I analyzed the top four so I can make fun of the Vikings in about four paragraphs, you know me too well.

Cam Newton was selected first, but I don’t think he qualifies as a Russell bust. He’s certainly got some concerns, but the guy is a winner. He didn’t lose a game in college. Maybe he has accuracy issues, but he has more natural leadership, poise, and confidence than any quarterback I’ve seen in years. I just can’t picture a guy like that as a loser. He might be a bust, but not a Russell bust.

Eighth overall pick Jake Locker, on the other hand, kinda sucks. Locker is a strange case, because I’m not entirely sure why he was ever projected to be the #1 pick in the draft, other than Mel Kiper told me so. Certainly I wouldn’t have thought that by looking at his Washington Husky team that went 16-34 in his four seasons, including 0-12 in his sophomore year. And I definitely didn’t see it in the first full game I saw him play, when he went 4-20 passing for 71 yards and 2 interceptions in a 56-21 loss to Nebraska last season. I am not persuaded that Locker was even a good college quarterback, let alone an NFL prospect worthy of the eighth overall pick.

Likewise, I’m not sold on tenth overall pick Blaine Gabbert, but I’m a bit torn. Gabbert and Josh Freeman both committed to Nebraska before they changed their minds and attended a different Big 12 school. Both weren’t all that impressive in college, but were high on every NFL expert’s draft list. I expected Freeman to fail in the NFL, just like I expect Gabbert to fail. But now Freeman is actually pretty good and I’m all kinds of confused. Let’s just move on…

To Christian Ponder. I applaud the Vikings’ strategy, but only because I’m a Packer fan. Apparently their thinking was that we need a quarterback, so why change things up when all the good quarterbacks have already been drafted?

I admit to not following the draft as well as I should have beforehand – I’m just too bummed about the lockout. I didn’t read a lot of Mel Kiper or Todd McShay before the draft, so I don’t know how high Ponder was on their draft boards. However, I do watch a lot of college football and I can say that at no point over the last four years did I think Ponder was an NFL quarterback, let alone a top 12 draft pick.

I briefly questioned my own thoughts when I looked back at his stats. He clearly isn’t bad, although he was injured much of his career. But I shouldn’t have to do that for the #12 pick in the draft. Before the draft, Ponder was just another in a long line of disappointing, highly recruited Florida State quarterbacks.

Judging by the comments on the Minneapolis Star Tribune website, Vikings fans agree with that sentiment. Ponder makes this year JaMarcus Russell bust All-Star team.

And I get to make fun of the pick for years.

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Cam Newton: Stud or Bust?

March 4, 2011

In recent memory, perhaps no quarterback prospect has been as polarizing as Cam Newton. In the past three days alone, I heard Colin Cowherd saying he would be a shoo-in as the #1 overall pick, Mel Kiper Jr. dropping him from seventh to tenth on the Big Board (and dropping him from first to second among quarterbacks in the process) because of a poor performance at the draft combine, and KC Joyner argued that Newton should not even be drafted in the first round. That is what you call diversity.

You could make an argument that Tim Tebow was fairly polarizing last year, since nearly every analyst ripped the Broncos for taking him in the first round. But even that doesn’t really work, because it was only the Broncos who thought Tebow should have been a first round pick. Nobody else outside of Gainesville would have drafted Tebow in the first round.

Maybe Vince Young was that polarizing. I seem to recall that people had concerns about his throwing motion. The 2006 draft was weird though – three teams in the top eleven picks drafted quarterbacks. 2004 was the only other year in the past decade that happened. Young was clearly one of the three best options at quarterback that year, so you couldn’t really make an argument that he was not a first round quarterback.

As I have pointed out in this blog before, drafting quarterbacks is largely a crapshoot. For every Peyton Manning there is a Ryan Leaf. For every Donovan McNabb there is an Akili Smith. And so on.

Analysts have been trying to figure out which quarterbacks will succeed since the inception of the NFL Draft. Now there is a mini-industry around projecting NFL draft picks, the draft combine is actually televised, and analysts start writing up mock drafts within days after one draft ends. Yet they haven’t really gotten much better at predicting successful quarterbacks. JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick, anyone?

The most egregious recent example is Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers in 2005. Check out this gem of a report from Alex Smith’s pro day in March of 2005. At the time, the 49ers were expected to take the hometown Rodgers with the first overall pick. Then Smith wowed with his arm accuracy and footwork at his pre-draft workout. It would be the last time he wowed anybody. You know how the story ends: Rodgers won this year’s Super Bowl with the Packers and 49ers fans actually chanted for David Carr during a game this season.

Which brings me back to Newton. Apparently Newton was less than impressive at the combine this past week. I can’t figure out why anyone should care. Newton is a freakishly good athlete who just put up ridiculous stats en route to winning both the Heisman Trophy and the National Championship. He is exceptionally fast and elusive and has the size of Big Ben. How is the best quarterback in the draft up for debate? If you know that drafting a quarterback is a crapshoot anyway, do you want to go down in flames with Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton? Seems that the answer should be pretty simple.

Yet Mel Kiper writes gems like this on his Big Board when bumping Gabbert over Newton: “Strong arm, excellent accuracy, prototypical size and physical skills. Smart not to throw in Indy, though proved he’s probably an underrated athlete.” That’s not a knock on Kiper – he just writes what NFL teams are thinking. The knock is on NFL teams for thinking that, and if the Alex Smith debacle taught us anything, it’s that NFL teams actually are thinking on those lines. What use is a draft combine when someone who DOESN’T THROW AT ALL comes out looking better than someone who did step up and throw. That doesn’t even border on anything close to logic.

Then there are the straight-up Newton haters like KC Joyner. In the second sentence of his column, he points out that the NFL Draft is full of physical specimens who didn’t pan out, like Brian Bosworth, Mike Mamula, and Lawrence Phillips. Two sentences in and Joyner has already lost me. He just compared Newton to a) a linebacker who ingested enough steroids to take down a horse; b) a guy who was never considered good until he bench pressed a lot of weight at the aforementioned combined; and c) the worst person ever. Assuming Newton isn’t on the ‘roids, none of those three situations are at all comparable to his situation.

Joyner then goes on to point out all of Newton’s flaws. Things like he overthrew a pass after he took an eight-step drop when he was supposed to take a nine-step drop or taking too long to throw a ball because he lingered too long with his running back on a play fake. Who cares?

As you can tell from my blog posts, I hate under-thinking things. I have spent time thinking about minor nuances in sports that no one else ever bothered to think about. But my pet peeve is over-thinking things. That is exactly what Joyner and the rest of the people that question Newton’s draft stock are doing here. When a guy like Newton is out there and you spend time dissecting his eight-step drop versus nine-step drop…well, that’s over-thinking.

With a physical specimen and proven winner like Newton, you draft first and worry about minor footwork issues later. Maybe Blaine Gabbert will end up being a better quarterback. Maybe Newton will end up being a huge bust. Maybe the whole “pro-style” quarterback ranking that puts Gabbert at #1 is really all it is cracked up to be. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that in three years, half of the analysts will get to say “I told you so” no matter what happens. Those analysts don’t know any more than the rest of us, they will just happen to guess right.

So if we’re guessing anyway, which of these two do you draft:

Player A: 14-0 record, 30 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 2,908 passing yards, 2nd in nation in QB rating
Player B: 10-3 record, 16 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 3,186 passing yards, 69th in nation in QB rating

I thought so.


Twenty-five Years of #1 High School Recruits

February 24, 2011

ESPN the Magazine ran an interesting “where are they now” story a few weeks ago about the #1 ranked high school recruits over the past 25 years. The top recruits ranged from solid NFL players like Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, and Anquan Boldin; to NFL busts like Tim Couch and Kevin Jones; to college busts like Randy Fasani and Kyle Wright; to busts in all walks of life like rape and incest suspect Xavier Crawford.

Top recruits have certainly met varying degrees of college and professional success. Some are still too young to tell how good they will be. Off the top of my head, the list of successful pros would look like this:

1. Hines Ward (WR, 1994, Georgia) – still active with 2 Super Bowl rings, 4 Pro Bowls, and 11,702 career receiving yards
2. Ricky Watters (RB, 1987, Notre Dame) – rushed for 10,643 yards and made 5 Pro Bowls in 10 seasons
3. Anquan Boldin (WR, 1999, Florida State) – one of best active receivers in NFL, has 8,357 yards, 51 TDs, and 3 Pro Bowls in 8 seasons
4. Shaun Alexander (RB, 1995, Alabam) – rushed for 9,453 yards and made 3 Pro Bowls in 9 seasons; briefly held single season rushing TD record with 27 TDs in 2005
5. Amani Toomer (WR, 1992, Michigan) – an above average receiver for 13-year career, retired with 9,497 career receiving yards
6. Jeff George (QB, 1986, Illinois by way of Purdue) – passed for 27,602 yards (154 TD, 113 INT) in 12 seasons
7. D.J. Williams (LB, 2000, Miami) – a solid starting linebacker for Broncos for last 8 seasons
8. Terry Kirby (RB, 1989, Virginia) – accounted for 8,471 yards as a returner/third down back for 4 teams in 10 seasons
9. Vince Young (QB, 2002, Texas) – two-time Pro Bowler has below average stats and may be on way out of Tennessee
10. Tim Couch (QB, 1996, Kentucky) – #1 draft pick bust wasn’t as horrendous as people remember (11,131 yards, 64 TD, 67 INT in 62 games)
11. Eugene Monroe (LT, 2005, Virginia) – already an established left tackle for Jaguars in second year in league
12. Kevin Jones (RB, 2001, Virginia Tech) – ran for 3,067 yards as starting running back for Lions for 4 seasons
13. David Givens (WR, 1998, Notre Dame) – 166 catches over 5 NFL seasons
14. Ted Ginn Jr. (WR, 2004, Ohio State) – #9 draft pick in 2007 is used primarily as a returner and is edging dangerously close to the “bust” label
15. Da’Quan Bowers (DE, 2008, Clemson) – projected #1 draft pick in 2011 Draft; that’s already a bigger accomplishment than everyone below him on this list
16. Chris Weinke (QB, 1990, Florida State) – after minor league baseball career, went 1-14 in 1 season as starter before riding the bench for his last six years in the league
17. Joe McKnight (RB, 2007, USC) – 189 rushing yards in rookie season as Jets backup (4.8 yards per carry)
18. Randy Fasani (QB, 1997, Stanford) – 44 passes thrown (0 TD, 4 INT) in 1 NFL season
19. Myron Rolle (DB, 2006, Florida State) – rookie spent year on Titans practice squad
20. Marquette Smith (RB, 1991, UCF by way of Florida State) – drafted but never played a regular season game
21. Ron Powlus (QB, 1993, Notre Dame) – saw some action in three preseasons; never played a regular season game
22. Kyle Wright (QB, 2003, Miami) – saw some action in one preseason; never played a regular season game
23. Xavier Crawford (RB, 1988, Memphis State) – never played in pros; currently an alleged rapist

Matt Barkley (QB, 2009, USC) and Ronald Powell (LB, 2010, Florida) are still active in college. Barkley has had an ugly USC career: the team is 17-7 in the 24 games he has started after going 72-7 in their previous six seasons (although we can’t really blame Barkley for all of that). Powell made the All-SEC Freshman Team as a linebacker in his first season with the Gators.

Interesting stuff. I don’t really have a whole article on the list, but I had a bunch of random thoughts.

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Five of the 22 #1 high school recruits that already graduated have made a Pro Bowl. I’m not sure if that’s a high number or a low number. On one hand, it seems low, as it seems to imply that 18 of the kids were busts. But on the other, that actually seems really high. Eugene Monroe seems like a great bet to make a Pro Bowl in the near future; D.J. Williams certainly might (he was an alternate in 2009). So we could be looking at seven of the best 18-year old football players in the country that could make Pro Bowl.

That’s really not too bad. Imagine picking 22 very good 18-year old football players that would make good professionals at some point in the future. If five actually ended up making the Pro Bowl, I feel like you’d consider that a success.

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I am sure that high school scouting overall has improved. It has become a huge industry in the Internet era: Rivals, Scouts, and every random football fan on the street has an opinion. I actually watched a game on ESPNU this year in which a potential Nebraska quarterback recruit played. High school recruiting is a BIG DEAL.

But with that said, these recruiting agencies have sure whiffed on a lot of #1 overall prospects. The six best pros on my list all graduated high school before 2000. Some of the #1 players from the past decade could potentially still crack the list, but that would be a long shot for most of them. D.J. Williams seems to have fallen into a role as an above average, but not great linebacker. Vince Young might be looking for a new team this offseason to try to resurrect his career. Eugene Monroe probably is a good bet to keep rising higher, but there’s not much of a chance for the rest of the #1 recruits of the 2000s. Kevin Jones and Kyle Wright have already left football; Ted Ginn Jr. has all the makings of a bust; Myron Rolle could not crack the Titans’ 53-man roster this season; and Joe McKnight is the Jets’ third-string running back. Da’Quan Bowers looks promising, but Matt Barkley hardly looks like a pro quarterback. That’s an awful lot of busts from this industry.

Compare that to the earlier years of recruiting, before the Internet turned recruiting into an entire industry. Jeff George, Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, Ricky Watters, and Amani Toomer all put together great college and pro careers. At the same time, the busts were bigger than they are now. Marquette Smith, Randy Fasani, Xavier Crawford, and Ron Powlus were all huge busts. In the last twelve years, only Kyle Wright has been an overwhelming bust.

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I have an interesting theory on the type of college program these recruits go to. The highest picks in the NFL draft on the list were Jeff George and Tim Couch (#1 overall in 1990 and 1999), Da’Quan Bowers (will be top-three pick in 2011), Vince Young (#3 in 2006), and Eugene Monroe (#8 in 2008). Here are the records of the college teams that these players went to in the three years previous to each player’s first college season:

Illinois (Jeff George): 3-7-1, 4-7, 6-5-1
Kentucky (Tim Couch): 4-7, 1-10, 6-6
Clemson (Da’Quan Bowers): 9-4, 8-5, 8-4
Texas (Vince Young): 11-2, 9-3, 9-5
Virginia (Eugene Monroe): 8-4, 8-5, 9-5

All five of those schools struggled prior to signing the #1 overall recruit. Only Texas really carried any kind of national prestige at the time.* So far, George, Couch, and Young are considered busts, while the verdict is still out on Bowers and Monroe.

* I could count Clemson, but Bowers joined the Tigers in 2008. Clemson really hasn’t been relevant for the past couple of decades.

Each of these players was a rousing success in college. As a result, they were all drafted high. They have had better NFL careers than most of the #1 high school recruits, but how much of that comes from the simple fact that they were a high draft pick? Teams are much more willing to give their top draft picks a longer leash – what if these players really weren’t better than their fellow top high school recruits, but they just stood out in college more because their teammates weren’t that great?

On the flip side, look at the schools of the top five players on my NFL list:

Georgia (Hines Ward, 92nd overall pick in 1998): 5-6, 10-2, 9-3
Notre Dame (Ricky Watters, 45th overall in 1991): 5-6, 5-6, 7-5
Florida State (Anquan Boldin, 54th overall in 2003): 11-2, 11-1, 11-1
Alabama (Shaun Alexander, 19th overall in 2000): 12-1, 9-3-1, 13-0
Michigan (Amani Toomer, 34th overall in 1996): 10-2, 9-3, 10-2

Notre Dame and Georgia are the weak links, but all five of those players went to schools with a fair amount of national prestige. We have a really small sample size here, but maybe this tells us something about which schools a top ranked player should go to. Better schools and better competition prepares players for the NFL more than lesser schools. But there is a huge risk and reward with going to a top school: leaving aside certified headcase Xavier Crawford, the other three players who never played in the NFL went to:

Miami (Kyle Wright, undrafted): 12-1, 12-0, 11-1
Notre Dame (Ron Pawlus, undrafted): 10-1-1, 10-3, 9-3
Florida State (Marquette Smith, 142nd overall pick in 1996): 10-2, 10-2, 11-1

I have a hunch that Matt Barkley (12-1, 11-2, 11-2) joins them soon. The common theme is that those top recruits that go to powerhouse schools are battle-tested. Those that have the talent to survive to make it to the professional ranks are likely to thrive. Those that don’t will be badly exposed in college.

On the other hand, it is quite a bit easier for the top recruits to stand out at lower programs. This is somewhat obvious – look no further than Matt Barkley and Joe McKnight for proof. Both were #1 recruits, both went to talent-laden USC, and neither has done much to show he was worthy of being the #1 recruit. If McKnight went to UCLA instead of USC, we could very well be talking about him as a first round NFL running back. Instead of focusing on his inadequacies, it would have been much easier to blame his teammates for his lack of production. The same goes for #1 picks Jeff George (16-7-1 in two seasons as a starter) and Tim Couch (12-11). Neither were battle-tested and both are considered among the biggest busts from the #1 draft slot.

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Finally, I was curious as to how far these players traveled to school. College away from home sounds good on paper and these guys have a chance to go anywhere in the country that they want. That can certainly lead to trouble: an 18-year old kid leaving to a different part of the country, living on his own for the first time, and pretty much being worshiped by everyone around them? Talk about a recipe for disaster.

But remarkably most of these players were not intrigued by the possibility of being a hero/partier in a different part of the country and instead stayed closed to home. Here is the list of players that went to school more than 500 miles away from home:

D.J. Williams (Miami): 3,033 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Kyle Wright (Miami): 3,020 miles from Monte Vista High (Danville, CA)
Ronald Powell (Florida): 2,346 miles from Rancho Verde High (Moreno Valley, CA)
Amani Toomer (Michigan): 2,340 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Joe McKnight (USC): 1,889 miles from John Curtis Christian (River Ridge, LA)
Chris Weinke (Florida State): 1,330 miles from Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, MN)
David Givens (Notre Dame): 1,132 miles from Humble High (Humble, TX)
Myron Rolle (Florida State): 1,064 from The Hun School (Princeton, NJ)
Ricky Watters (Notre Dame): 568 miles from Bishop McDevitt High (Harrisburg, PA)
Ron Powlus (Notre Dame): 566 miles from Berwick High (Berwick, PA)

That seemed surprising to me at first, but I suppose it really isn’t. A kid that has worked hard enough to be the best high school football player in the country probably has a college in mind already. He is likely to stick close to home to go to the school he has been idolizing.

Looking at the list again we can discount the three players who went to Notre Dame because the Irish have such a large national presence. Wright, Weinke, and Rolle come from areas of the country where professional football is far more important than college football. Williams and Toomer both went to De La Salle, which fancies itself as the best high school football program in the country – in a way, high school football is the biggest game for De La Salle. So that really only leaves Powell and McKnight as surprising college choices.

Both Powell and McKnight were the #1 recruit in the last five years. Will the surprising college choices continue in the future now that recruiting is a huge nationwide industry? Or will local colleges still dominate recruiting? I’m not sure. That might be a post for another day.


How to Pick College Football Bowl Games

January 18, 2011

As promised, here is my wrapup column with all the lessons I learned throughout bowl season. Timely, I know. This guide would have been extremely helpful a month ago.

However, if I don’t write these down, I won’t remember them next season. This way, I’ll only have to remember to look at my blog archives. I will almost certainly forget to do that, but there’s always a chance that I remember.

Some of these are rules that we were all well aware of before the games, but were emphatically reassured with this season’s games. Others are somewhat new thoughts. In no particular order, here are eight lessons I learned from this year’s bowl slate:

1. Do not bet against the SEC in the National Championship Game

Yeah, we already knew this one. SEC teams had won four straight BCS championships heading into this season. But Auburn really hammered this point home with their victory over Oregon.

In many ways, this was the SEC’s biggest challenge to their supremacy. The previous four titles came against the Big 12 and Big Ten. This was the Pac-10’s first crack at the SEC. The Pac-10 is widely viewed as the second fastest conference after the SEC, and Oregon dominated that conference like no team since USC six years ago. Though Auburn finished undefeated, they were viewed as one of the weaker SEC champions of recent times because of their propensity to do juuuust enough to win games. If a team was going to end the SEC’s reign of dominance, this was the year.

It was not to be. Oregon only lost by a field goal, but the difference was apparent. Auburn and Oregon were both fast, but only Auburn was big and fast. From now on, don’t pick against the SEC in the championship game – wait until another conference shows that they can compete with the best the SEC has to offer.

2. Trust the good SEC teams, but not the average SEC teams

The five best SEC teams to make bowl games (Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama, and Mississippi State) went a combined 4-1 with 3 blowouts. The next five teams (South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky) went 1-4. Last year, SEC teams that finished 8-4 or better went 3-1 in bowl games; teams 7-5 or worse went 3-3.

Between 1998 and 2008, SEC teams that entered bowl games with 8-4 records or better went 31-24 (.564). Teams with 7-4 or worse records went a 18-10 (.643). Way too small of a sample size? Absolutely. But it’s worth keeping an eye on. For many years, the strength of the conference was in the middle – the conference won only two of the first eight BCS titles. Since then, the conference has become top-heavy with the best schools getting the best recruits and coaches. It would surprise no one if the SEC became a conference of haves and have-nots like the Big 12 or Big Ten.

If so, watch out for the 6-6 and 7-5 schools in bowl games. If 6-6 SEC teams continue lose to mediocre teams from the Big East, Conference USA, and ACC, you might as well throw the “always bet on the SEC” rule goes out the door.

#3. Watch out for unmotivated teams

My full post on this is here. In that post, I identified the eight games this season with an unmotivated team that was favored by a touchdown or more. The games resulted in four blowouts for the favored team and four straight-up wins for the underdog.

In my original post, I compared these games to the 5 vs. 12 games in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Often in these games, you have an underdog that enters the game with something to prove versus a favorite that finds themselves in a less desirable bowl game because of a poor finish to the season. The lesson: beware of putting high confidence values on these teams in pools. It’s a pretty empty feeling when you know within the first five minutes that a team you put a high value on didn’t bother to show up for the game.

#4. Conference USA sucks

I know, I know, Central Florida beat Georgia after I swore up-and-down that a Conference USA team couldn’t beat a BCS conference team. In my Military Bowl preview, I pointed out that since 2005 Conference USA teams were 0-10 against BCS conference teams in bowls (0-11 after East Carolina was pummeled by Maryland).

Finally, C-USA champion Central Florida ended that streak with a 10-6 win over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. Call me crazy, but I’m not impressed. I watched parts of the Liberty Bowl and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team care about winning as little as 6-6 Georgia did in that game. And the C-USA champion still barely slipped by.

SMU, Southern Miss, East Carolina, and UTEP all showed how overmatched mediocre teams from C-USA are against mediocre teams from other conferences. It might be okay to bet on a really good C-USA team, but resist the urge to pick 7-5 and 6-6 teams. And I’m well aware that Tulsa destroyed Hawaii, which brings me to my next point…

#5. Don’t trust Hawaii at home in bowl games

In this post, I listed Hawaii’s performance at home in bowl games since 1999. Long story short: you never know what you’re going to get with the Warriors at home in bowl seasons. They win games that they’re not supposed to and lose games that they’re heavy favorites in.

#6. Do stick with teams you like in the season and don’t over-think match-ups

If I made a list of teams that I really liked after the season, it would have included these teams: Stanford (maybe the best team in the country by season’s end); LSU (they just win baby); Boise State (drastically undervalued after losing to a very good Nevada team on the road); Notre Dame (ended season on a hot streak); and Nevada (see Boise State). The list of teams I didn’t like included: Kansas State and Georgia (both burned me late in the season); Michigan (0-8 ATS in their last eight games); Nebraska (peaked way too soon); and South Carolina (insanely overrated based on win over Alabama).

Then the matchups got in the way. I picked all five of those teams I liked, but for various reasons, only put 29, 17, 26, 18, and 24 confidence points on them because I was scared of their matchups. Amazingly, I picked Kansas State (28), Georgia (30), and Nebraska (34) for waaaay too many points because I thought they fell into favorable matchups. I also only picked a solid Florida State team for 14 against the South Carolina team that I thought was overrated. In the Michigan game, I did pick Mississippi State for 31, so at least I followed my instincts once.

The moral of the story? Stick with teams you like and teams you don’t like. Don’t let unfavorable matchups sway you from teams that you liked during the season. And definitely don’t let favorable matchups trick you into picking teams that just aren’t playing all that well.

7. Sun Belt > MAC

For some reason, the NCAA likes pairing up these two conferences against each other. Maybe it’s a conspiracy to keep these also-rans away from other teams. Whatever the reasons, I’m sure the bowls that have to host these teams absolutely love it.

The standard theory is that the Sun Belt is the worst conference in the country. This is wrong – the MAC is worse. Even picking up the scraps that SEC and ACC teams leave behind in the fertile recruiting territory in the South, Sun Belt teams are still way faster than MAC teams. Sun Belt and MAC teams have met in bowls five times in the last three years. Each time, the MAC team had the better record. They have gone 2-3. Their only two wins were 11-2 MAC champion Central Michigan over 9-3 Troy in double overtime last year and 9-4 MAC champion Miami over 6-6 Middle Tennessee this year.

The very best MAC teams might be better than the top Sun Belt teams. But if the team’s records are within a game of each other, trust the speed of the Sun Belt.

8. Some coaches get their teams up for bowl games; others fail miserably

The Missouri/Iowa game was a good microcosm of this theory. I read an argument on a message board on this game. Angry poster #1 argued that Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz gets his guys up for bowl games and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel struggles to do the same. Without doing any research, this seemed correct based on my memory. Then angry poster #2 pointed out that, before this game, Ferentz was 5-3 in bowl games and Pinkel was 4-3. Well great, now I didn’t know what to think.

Turns out, angry poster #1 was emphatically right. Of Ferentz’s three losses, only one was a blowout (the 2002 Orange Bowl to a USC team that would win the next two national titles). The other two were to Florida in 2005 (31-24; Florida won the national title the next year) and to Texas in 2006 (26-24; Iowa was 6-6 and Texas was 10-2). Pinkel’s three losses came in a 35-13 beatdown against Navy last year, a 39-38 loss to Oregon State in the 2006 Sun Bowl, and a 27-14 loss to Arkansas in the 2003 Independence Bowl. Really, the only bowl game that Missouri has looked impressive in is when an 11-2 Tiger team dominated an 8-4 Arkansas team 38-7 in the 2007 Cotton Bowl.

Records aside, not all bowl performances are created equal. In retrospect, I might still have picked Missouri, but not for 23 confidence points against a team that has historically always been ready to play. Same with Fresno State; as I pointed out here, Pat Hill has struggled getting his team ready for bowl games. For some reason, I picked them anyway. I shouldn’t have been surprised when Northern Illinois beat them 40-17 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.