Competitive Parity in Division I Football as In Relates to Inter-Subdivision Play
The Spread is Overrated
Today I'm going to begin a bit differently. In fact, I'm going to begin a lot differently. For today I would like you to think of me not as a Navy blogger, but a very active and enthused participant in our understanding of the college football game.
There have been times, indeed, when I have ventured outside of the scope of Navy football and address the college football game at large. These times have been fewer and far between since returning to Pitch Right after my stint at the Fan House, but have nonetheless marked points in my blogging career. I'm selective with such posting however, and usually reserve my commentary on such matters in cases of great personal disgust or profound national misinterpretation. In 2006 it was my belief that it was the rise of the Naval Academy program which began the downfall of Fisher DeBerry's juggernaut at Air Force, and not (as many asserted at the time) the coincidental rise of the Mountain West conference. While my assertions were not, and are still not I suppose, taken as canon law, I nonetheless stand by my premise even to this day.
Likewise, the topic I wish to address today could be said to contain elements of controversy, which, believe it or not, are born out of my own personnel disgust (maybe that's too hard, let's call it annoyance) and what I believe is a misinterpretation of the topic at hand. That topic is the single most gripping term in the sport today and an all to frequent and convenient explanation that has the blog's buzzing and the talking heads talking. That topic, as you've probably guessed by now, is the spread offense.
I'm man enough to admit that I have many personal bias', although would point out that I'm usually very careful to disguise them. Outside of a personal affinity towards Jarod Bryant in the great (or not so great) quarterback debate of midseason 2006, I've also hinted at being a closet-supporter of the BCS system and have made it known (on multiple occasions, although none too recent) that I would follow Phil Steele into a volcano if I thought it would advance the intelligence of the college football community. And, unlike some Navy fans, I don't innately hate the Air Force Academy, and even found it within my limits to cheer them on against the University of Communism, er, California. So, with that in mind, I have to tell you all how sick I am of hearing about how great the spread offense is, and specifically how great the spread offense is as it relates to inter-subdivision competitive parity. Whoa now, is that even a term? I think it is, but if not, I’d like the rights to it. Basically my beef is with the idea that the spread is the sole reason for the upsets we saw in 2007, and more specifically the upsets that saw I-AA teams defeat I-A teams (old terminology used because of frequent complaints.) It's a point of much debate around my house; often involving my incessant yelling at a TV screen with a few words I wouldn't use in the company of say my three year old godson. Nevertheless, I’ll try to be a good deal more civil in my attempts to rebuke this widespread myth.
It’s About the Kids, Man
In the months following Appalachian State's extraordinary and historic upset win over the University of Michigan (and it was indeed historic) the spread offense (more specifically the read option based spread out of the shotgun) has been the beneficiary of praise from everyone from Stu Mandel to Joe Schmoe blogger in his parents’ basement. The spread has been called, on far too numerous an occasion, the great equalizer of the college game. This is not without merit, as many upset wins of the 2007 season have shown us. While overly cliché and perhaps hastily interpreted, even the detractors to the "in" crowd of the college football landscape could see that Michigan's defense struggled to play in space with Appalachian State, and that the Mountaineers spread offense caused matchup problems for what has been described as a slow Michigan defense. However, since that historic day we’ve been hit with constant barrages glorifying the spread, and somehow have arrived at a point where the craziness and parity of the 2007 season is being explained away by the single, often ambiguously termed offense.
I believe we have interpreted the parity incorrectly, and have overlooked the real reasons for the growing competitive balance, specifically in regard to inter-divisional play. Don't believe me? For every mobile, spread option based Armanti Edwards beating Michigan I will show you a slow, pro-style quarterback Joe Flacco beating Navy. For every "fast" and "elusive" CoCo Hilary running wild I will show you a 240-lb "big fella" (ESPN speak for white guy with the football) in a power running offense run wild on bowl bound Central Michigan and Big Ten member Minnesota. These examples, often overlooked, suggest that I-AA teams can beat I-A without the use of what we understand today to be ‘the spread.’ Furthermore, if you take a look at some of the bigger I-A upsets of the year, you’ll find that in many cases the spread had little or nothing to do with the underdog’s victory. Take Pittsburgh for example. The Panthers had an absolutely anemic conventional offense for most of the year (finished 108th in total offense) but won the game largely because of their defense. Stanford, meanwhile, ran a similarly conventional style offense and beat USC in what is arguably the greatest upset in college football history. In both cases, the traditional factors for an upset were present –turnovers, injuries, and penalties- but were they really enough to get such heavy underdogs over the top?
In my mind they weren’t, which is why I’ve set out to explain why there has to be some other reason for these kinds of upsets, while clearly not giving way to the all too simple citation of ‘the spread.’Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not here to completely discount or discredit the spread. That would make me an idiot. However I cannot sit idly by and watch the spread take all the credit for something that it has only contributed too. The key word here is contributed, as in play a part in. The real culprits for college football's parity are much more subtle; factors which are not as easily apparent to you or me as we spend our Saturday’s watching the myriad of college football action. For the sake of a coherent thesis, I've identified two of these factors, and would like to take an opportunity to discuss both of them, while inviting anyone who has made it this far in the post to offer suggestions of others.
The first factor (and I believe the most profound in the long term) is the growth the game at all levels of competition. What do I mean by this? Well, I mean that if you were a casual observer with no kids or no particular reason to penetrate the very issue, you may be lead to believe that we are in fact a nation of fat kids. While nobody is disputing that childhood obesity is a very real and problematic issue, I would offer up that at least some of those fat kids developed into somewhat athletic fat kids, which coincidently is what this great sport is predicated on. I only kid (partially) but the numbers speak for themselves. A 2006 National Sporting Goods Association Survey found that nearly 12 million kids over the age of seven had played tackle football more than once, up from 7.4 million kids in 1998. As far as High School football goes, the National Federation of High School Sports found that some 1,071,775 young men were playing high school football in 2005-2006, a number which not only signals the highest participation on record, but confirms that football is the most popular of the various high school sports for boys. The survey found that in 2005-2006 alone, high school football saw a dramatic rise in participation, adding some 26,281 teenagers into the fold. And that’s just for 11-man football, excluding the eight man teams and leagues that are present in areas of lower population density around our country. I did some poking around, but was unable to find further statistics. However, I believe even the above support my premise. The game is growing at a very high rate- not just in fandom, but in participation.
It is, in fact, economics at it's base. There is a demand for football in this country, both in terms of playing it, and in terms of watching it. As football becomes more popular more kids are going to want to play it. As more kids play it, and play it at youth and high school programs determined to churn out a better product, players inevitably get better. The talent pool, while expanding because of the sheer growth of the sport, becomes even larger as more and more colleges add football, in effect determining the size of what is "acceptable" talent based on their relative standing in the college football hierarchy.
“The Key Word Is Value. Do you Have Any? Not Yet”
Now here's the second, and potentially more interesting part to my premise. We've established there are more kids playing youth and high school football than they're were ten years ago, and we've also established more colleges have added football in the past ten years, regardless of Division. But you may still find my point bogus, not applicable because, as VarsityEdge.com put it, “[recruiting] has nothing to do with numbers of high school players and all to do with how many players want to continue at D1 and can continue at D1.” This is a valid point, but an ignorant one. Isn’t it possible, I dare say, that as you increase the amount of people playing the sport that you’re inevitably going to uncover and/or develop more players who will be able to continue to the next level? I would certainly think so, unless someone actually suggests that each and every one of those 26,281 teenagers was a 5’3, 124-lb middle linebacker who runs a 5.7/40 and couldn’t tackle a dummy. The point, as I’ve been saying, is simple. The increase in participation has moved us to a point where the supply of I-A caliber talent outweighs the demand for it at the I-A level for it. Obviously when something like this happens you end up seeing very capable players take the next best option- aka playing I-AA football. So while we’ve built these classifications of I-A and I-AA (as well as BCS conference and non-BCS conference) as meaning something in terms of talent differentiation, the reality of the situation is that the increased supply of capable football players has dramatically shrunk the supposed “talent gap” between divisions. Obviously this change began before the 2007 season, but as so often is the case, our perception of such a change remained nonexistent until 2007, when it finally took several groundbreaking upsets to alert the majority of us to it. Yet what of these “excess” Division I-A prospects that inevitably get funneled through the ranks of Division I-AA because of the laws of supply and demand? Are they in fact underrated, or are they undervalued?
A little bit of both, in my mind at least. Obviously they are undervalued to an extent, since their value is largely dependent on their demand at the I-A level. And since we’ve already established there is an excess of I-A talent (more I-A caliber players than I-A scholarships available), those players who don’t get scholarships for I-A teams inherently have less value, because they simply are not needed. However, consider the process by which comparative value is determined. In other words, what makes Team X decide to give a scholarship to Player A and not Player B? This is where you have to account for the idea of underrating; since, in a completely black and white world, Player A and B (both being Division I-A capable players) would have the same value and such a decision would either be incapable of making or have to be completely random.
This is clearly not the case in the real world, as I-A teams make decisions with regards to recruiting which should all be familiar and basic to us by now. However, for a variety of reasons (needs, system fits, etc), many schools discount the ability of certain recruits, and by doing so seemingly determine their value. It’s not always cut and dry though, and actually rarely is when you think about it. All too often in fact players are underrated based on circumstantial events or even taboo factors such as height, weight, and even race. For instance, if Notre Dame, Indiana, and Ball State all choose not give a scholarship to Joe Schmoe, then an outside observer may conclude that Joe Schmoe isn’t capable of playing I-A football. What if however Joe Schmoe had some kind of taboo against him? What if (God forbid we use a case which has actually has happened before) Joe is a 6’, 220-lb running back who ran a 4.58/40 and also happened to be a white guy. What if Joe has been offered to walk on at two of those three schools at linebacker? Does an invitation to walk on make him less capable of playing I-A football? If you said yes, you may want to reconsider. After all, there are dozens of highly distinguished former walk-ons around the country who’ve made names for themselves and gone on (or will go on) to NFL careers. These players weren’t necessarily undervalued if invited to walk on, but because they weren’t given a scholarship they are inherently underrated by there own coaching staff. Eventually though, many of those players go on to win scholarships at the I-A level and some even become stars (Jordly Nelson comes to mind.)
Up until very recently, services such as Scout.com and Rivals.com, along with SuperPrep and Tom Lemmings’ organization, were among the few services which actually covered recruiting, and, in doing so, were able to effectively set the value of players based off of rating them. Now it’s not like they just did so arbitrarily, but then again you have to understand that there were and are limits to what recruiting services can do. Simply put, recruiting services just can’t track of all the capable players in the country, especially when they’re using out-of-date and archaic indicators of value in an increasingly plentiful landscape. Translation? They’re still influencing the value of players, but they’re doing so based on the number of I-A teams (as well as their traditional, and often flawed indicators) and not the number of players. You may be scratching your head right now, thinking that programs, with help from the scouting services, rate and ultimately determine the value of players based on pre-described categories and clearly defined boundaries (Let’s say I-A football.) But in reality that’s not how it works. Players are their own indicator of value, since they’re the one’s who actually do the playing (shocking I know), and ultimately determine the value of that program or team (from a competitive, not fiscal standpoint.)
Let’s use another example. Let’s say John Johnson has offers to play cornerback in I-A football, but only at cornerback. But let’s say John wants to play quarterback, which he can only do at the I-AA level. If he says “no” to those offers and elects to play at a “lower” level of competition does that make him any less capable of playing I-A football? I understand that this is a potentially grey area, but the answer is still no, and that’s he’s still a capable I-A talent. Scenarios like this, and the one of Joe Schmoe, have happened en mass, and I believe hold the key to understanding a competitive balance which will only continue. In the years following the obsession of pre-described and unrealistic categories for what makes a I-A football player, a large number of undervalued players simply “slipped through the cracks” as it were (actually more like a chasm) and found themselves on I-AA teams. These teams, which always had a few good, underrated players, now had more and more undervalued players to go along, and in doing so became to resemble a team which was more I-A in talent. For the last few years such teams were chipping away at I-A teams, but it took 2007 for the floodgates to open and a whole slew of upsets – including, but by no means limited to Appalachian State over Michigan – for such a premise to actually become a possibility.
In ten years the zone read will be defeated. If only but for a time and only in a circumstance, the perception of such a defeat will nonetheless spurn the wheels of change and usher us into a new fad of offensive or defensive merit that itself will be proclaimed the next "great equalizer." Do not be fooled however, as such a system or philosophy will inevitably give way as well. Yet the game, and it's seemingly newfound competitive parity, will remain the same, if not altogether greater. As I have shown, this transformation is due more to a growth within the sport at the youth and high school levels, coupled with the undervaluing and underrating of capable I-A players, than to any offensive fad which has stolen the imaginations of fans across the country. The spread, it can be said then, only augments these factors. The spread then is successful not because of some innate matchup problems that it causes, but rather because it is different, and when executed by capable players (undervalued or otherwise) it can put a defense not used to game planning for it on it's heels. The spread doesn’t make the players successful, but is rather made successful by players who at their very core could be successful in any offense. So it can be said that the above, factored with the traditional emotions that come with being an underdog, not only help us to explain the upsets of I-AA teams over I-A teams, but more importantly help us to understand upsets in the greater context of 2007.