The Numerical, Week 12: Nerds are killing sports

Ronald Martinez

Nerds are killing sports, but Kansas State-Baylor and Oklahoma-West Virginia were still a lot of fun.

450,000. Experience points it takes to purchase sixth-level alchemy skills in Dungeons & Dragons. I know this because I am a terrible nerd, and I like to boil everything in life down to either a game I can play, or something I can solve and defeat, in my mother's basement. That must be why I use numbers to talk about football. I like to solve the game and accurately predict everything that happens. This is much more fun to me than actually watching the games. I knew Baylor was going to upset Kansas State, Stanford was going to upset Oregon and Texas A&M was going to upset Alabama, therefore I didn't see any point, or magic, in actually watching any of those games. I'm too busy to actually watch, you see. I've got other priorities, like building up 450,000 experience points.

I am, in other words, what ESPN's Jeff MacGregor (a great guy in real life, I'm sure, and one with whom I would probably enjoy watching football and drinking beer) most likely thinks of when he pictures somebody who uses numbers to talk about football.

Symbolism and empty poetics have taken a real beating these last few years, and we've roughed up metaphor and cheap cliché too, but we're mostly better off for doing so and have a clearer understanding of what it is we're seeing. And while I'd never make an argument in favor of ignorance or innumeracy, I will make the following observation: It's still fun to be surprised. Proposals, elopements, birthday parties and Baylor's unexpected massacre of Kansas State on Saturday are sufficient reminders of this small truth.

But surprise, however charming, is the enemy of efficiency. And efficiency, rather than ephemeral nonsense like your happiness or mine, is what we're all chasing in this new Western world of ours. [...]

In other words, more information leads to fewer surprises. Which is essential for survival, great in business, and probably good for politics -- but opposes everything we love most about watching sports. Or magic acts. Or reading novels or going to the movies. Part of our deepest joy lies in emphatically not knowing what happens next. My steam-driven colleagues worry the price of prediction and our new precision is too high.

The numbers are only the sparks thrown off by the hammer on the anvil after all, not the thing itself. Statistics are the byproduct, not the reason for being. The game exists to produce joy or sadness or distraction or love or hate or a thousand sensations unrelated to common sense or business or efficiency. Not even money. So to what end do we go to WAR over VORP?

First of all, I'm pretty sure there was not a number in the world that could have told you that Baylor would beat Kansas State by 28 points. Even my S&P+ rankings, which are basically notorious for hating the Wildcats, didn't see this coming. S&P+ had KSU ranked only 15th heading into this past weekend, but it had Baylor just 43rd. So it would have probably predicted Baylor to cover, but that's about it. These same numbers also thought Alabama would beat A&M by 20-plus.

In other words, even nerds see magic in college football sometimes. If anything else, numbers help us separate the real magic from the things we probably should have seen coming but didn't. With all the numbers in the world at my disposal, I thought Alabama, Oregon and, yes, Kansas State would probably win easily. In fact, this crazy weekend prompted me to write a "Wow, college football makes no sense and is awesome" piece.

Second, efficiency is awesome. It's one of my favorite things in the world. It allows me to learn more things in x number of hours than I would have otherwise. You see, I work a lot of hours in a given week, mostly learning about college football, talking about college football, writing about college football, and swimming in box scores and advanced stats. With all the efficiency at my disposal -- numbers that tell me a ton about games I didn't get a chance to watch, the fast forward command on my overloaded DVR that allows me to watch more football than I otherwise could, and so forth -- I am able to do more in the same number of hours, not the same in fewer hours. But make no mistake: efficiency is my lifeblood. And I still had no idea Baylor was going to beat Kansas State by 24 points.

Third, statistics, numbers, computers, and whatnot bring my enjoyment of the game to a new level. That is why I began to pursue them in the first place. If you don't want to use, learn or acknowledge them, then don't. But let's not pretend they are ruining or taking the joy out of anything.

Finally, everything I wrote about Dungeons & Dragons comes from this Angelfire (fitting) page. I've never played D&D, in a basement or otherwise, in my underpants or otherwise. I don't say this to further prove any point. I just wanted it known.

1,440. Total yards in Oklahoma's 50-49 win over West Virginia. Oklahoma's Landry Jones threw for 554 yards, WVU's Tavon Austin rushed for 344, WVU's Stedman Bailey CAUGHT 205 yards' worth of passes, and … yeah, this game was awesome. And it actually drowned out the Clemson-N.C. State game, which featured more points (110) but only 1,351 yards.

265. Combined receiving yards gained by two Miami receivers -- Herb Waters and Clive Walford -- with names more like those of record executives than football players. USF sold out to stop Duke Johnson, and Waters, Walford and Phillip Dorsett combined to catch 19 of 25 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns in an easy, 40-9 Hurricanes win.

176. Rushing and receiving yards gained by Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk in September and October. He had 172 yards, one touchdown, and one catch for four yards. In three games since the calendar flipped to November, Seastrunk has gained 491 total yards (388 rushing, 103 receiving) and scored five touchdowns, including this brilliant run:

Sometimes it takes a five-star recruit a little while to figure everything out. But when (if) they do, it doesn't take you long to see the potential everybody saw all along. Just ask Missouri's Dorial Green-Beckham, the No. 1 recruit in the country in the Class of 2012, who caught seven passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in his first seven games and has caught 17 for 212 yards and three touchdowns in the last four weeks. Or maybe LSU's Jarvis Landry, who caught four passes last year and caught 23 in the first eight games of 2012, but has caught 21 for 245 and two scores in the last three games. You never know when the switch will get flipped, but when it does, things change in a hurry.

124. Colorado's current F/+ ranking. There are, by the way, 124 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Now, if we really wanted to, we could debate the merits of the Buffs' struggles with competency next to those of New Mexico State, UMass, Hawaii and others. But New Mexico State, UMass, Hawaii and others didn't win a national title 22 years ago, finish in the AP Top 10 in each year from 1994-96 (and again in 2001) and win four Big 12 North titles* in five years from 2001-'05. This tumble continues to find new levels of depth, but if there is good news in this, it's that you cannot go any lower than 124th, at least not this year. There's no way from here but up.

* Trust me, I know how bad the North was in those last couple of years. But still.

85. Sam B. Richardson's completion percentage. Iowa State's third-string quarterback, Richardson was thrust into action against Kansas and fared really well, completing 23 of 27 passes for 250 yards and four touchdowns, and the Cyclones destroyed the Jayhawks, 51-23, in Lawrence.

83. Length of the drive that put away the USC-UCLA game. Despite an early explosion and constant pressure on USC quarterback Matt Barkley, the Trojans had managed to cut a 24-7 UCLA lead to just 31-28 on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Barkley to Marqise Lee with 7:22 remaining in the game. But the ultra-young Bruins sucked it up and responded with perhaps the most perfect drive of the week. Brett Hundley found Shaq Evans for 18 yards and Joseph Fauria for 15 yards, and Johnathan Franklin capped off the nine-play, 83-yard drive with a 29-yard score. Ballgame.

39. Oregon State players who logged a stat in the defensive portion of the box score during the Beavers' 62-14 win over California. Mike Riley tried as hard as he could not to run up the score in Jeff Tedford's final game as Cal coach. He really did.

24.8. Northwestern's turnover points margin, as defined here, in the Wildcats' 23-20 win over Michigan State. It was just more of the same for MSU, which has now lost five games by a total of 13 points. The Spartans are 5-6, and if their offense was a touchdown better (or better able to hold onto the ball), they might be about 10-1. It's been an odd year in East Lansing, as if there were any other type.

16. Total possessions in the Georgia Tech-Duke game, not including end-of-half clock killers. Washington State had 16 by themselves in their 46-7 loss to Arizona State.

9. Consecutive games in which Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch has thrown for at least 190 yards and rushed for at least 125. Projected over 14 games, Lynch is now on pace for 3,300 passing yards and 28 touchdowns, and 1,900 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. That is complete silliness. It is distilled, concentrated Chandler Harnish.

5. Consecutive games lost by Iowa. This includes three-point losses to both Indiana and Purdue and a blowout loss to Michigan this past Saturday. The last time the Hawkeyes had a losing streak this long? The 1999 and 2000 seasons, Kirk Ferentz's first in Iowa City, which saw them drop 13 in a row. I'm going to assume both that a) Ferentz will still be in Iowa City next season and b) this streak will not reach 13. But let's just say that I was 100 percent confident in both of those assumptions a couple of weeks ago, and less so now.

2.3. Average yards per play for Ohio State between their first three drives and the end of regulation in their 21-14 win over Wisconsin. The Wisconsin defense played its best game in a long, long time, allowing just one offensive touchdown in 60 minutes. But the Ohio State defense, led by Ryan Shazier and John Simon (15.5 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four sacks, one forced fumble, two passes broken up), was better.

1. Weeks spent by Kansas State at No. 1. As a Missouri fan who drank in every second of Mizzou's 2007 run, I say welcome to the one-week club. One is better than zero.

0. Passes thrown by Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz in the Falcons' 21-7 win over Hawaii. Despite an early 7-0 deficit, Air Force attempted 67 rushes and one pass, and Dietz was sacked on the only pass attempt. Air Force football in its purest form. Meanwhile, Georgia and South Carolina each faced rather potent, Air Force-like FCS offenses; Georgia Southern scored 14 points and gained 318 yards on Georgia while attempting four passes, while Wofford actually had South Carolina tied heading into the fourth quarter while attempting four passes. Oh yeah, and New Mexico attempted two passes in just a seven-point loss to Nevada. Who said college football is an all-passing game?

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