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The Alphabetical, Week 11: Where 4th Down Is Not Sacrosanct

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A is for Average: Ho-hummery all around for Texas (47-14 over Baylor) Alabama (31-3 over Miss State), and Boise State (63-25). Heading into a drab week with appropriately drab results, the college football season in general continues to play in the key of ennui with largely expected results and a huge hunk of lopsided matchups. Frankly, if the thought of being alone wasn't so frightening, college football, we'd try something new. Cue Joe Jackson:


I said that won't be too much fun for us... Every relationship has its downcycles, and maybe we're in one, baby. Seeing other people isn't an option, but I need some spontaneity. And no, I'm not asking for a threesome with the NFL, or even a pay-per-view weekend in Vegas with MMA...but an upset just to spice this up? Some TCU-in-the-BCS lingerie? Just something sexy, and not like that thing you tried to pull on us in 2003.

B is for Balls. Pardon an NFL digression, but this morning you will read flaming jeremiads against written against Bill Belichick and his decision to pass for a first down on 4th and 2 on the Patriots' 28. This should not be surprising given the rampant cowardice in the NFL, a league where teams more often than not are coached not to look bad rather than taking the chances they need to win. (Millions of dollars on the line and the corporate risk aversion accepted. Still, job preservation is rule one, with winning coming second. The strategies to do both of those things are sometimes at odds here.)

The numbers back Belichick's decision: the anticipated gain from making the conversion even on his own doorstep outweighed the possible gains of a punt by about 9 percent and would have won the game. (For parsimony's sake, forget it's Peyton Manning waiting on the bench licking his goofy chops waiting for a chance to win the game.) It was a winning strategy, not the winning strategy, and it was an aggressive one. It was one NFL fans who don't watch the college game would find unrecognizable, and might consider insane.

4th down is not sacrosanct, however, either by the numbers (as shown in papers by economist David Romer) or in practice. Even in a 41-10 walk against Duke on Saturday Paul Johnson went for it twice on 4th down in the first half, a pattern he's never changed in a 124-44 coaching career. Not all coaches who go for it on 4th down in unlikely situations are as successful. Take the case of Punchin' Mike Locksley, New Mexico's coach, has gone for it on 4th down 27 times this year, making 13 of them for a 48% pace. (They come in second only to Air Force's 28 attempts, converted 18 times for a 64.3% pace.) Some coaches go for it because they know the numbers, and some just like to live like pillaging Vikings no matter the situation.

That so many people are shocked by the wager in an age when poker, a game that actually pipes in live probability percentages into the graphics for each hand, is further proof that we as a nation still suck at math. Vegas and its shiny buildings remain safe, and so do its adept gamblers for whom a dollar is ten thousand is a million dollars.

No matter the sums involved, if you have the numbers, you take the wager, since risk is ever-present in every situation, and the sums are incidental. Players like Paul Johnson and Bill Belichick understand this. Fans screaming at them for exploiting the numbers do not. (It helps that many of the fans in the stands at Georgia Tech game can do the numbers in their head on the spot.)

C is for Constants. Ohio State, first in the Big Ten on November 16th. Jim Tressel, Kimbo Slice of coaches, continues to knock out fools bareknuckled in his backyard. If he could only stay there without venturing into the Octagon with others, his image would be untarnished. And now we're imagining Jim Tressel with a bald head, massive beard, and gold teeth.




Behold! Jimbo Slice. Don't act like it's not the sexiest thing you've ever seen.

D is for Displaced. Golden Tate, channeling his best Leon after the 29-22 loss to Pitt.

As for why others couldn't make more plays, Tate said: ''I can only speak for myself. Every day I come out and try to play like it's my last play. I can't speak for other guys.''

Charlie Weis is getting his men ready for the NFL. There's no "I" in "team," but there ain't no "we," either.

E is for Excrescence. Louisville and Syracuse on Saturday was a rolling extravaganza of morbid curiosity for the viewers assembled at the Alphabetical's tailgate of choice on Saturday. "Are they still scoreless in the first quarter?" (They were.) "Did no one score a single point in the first half?" (They didn't.) "Has anyone thrown themselves off the upper deck of Papa John's Stadium yet? (Not as far as we know, but even Camus would have understood.) Did Dexter McCluster's total yardage from Saturday exceed the winning team's totals by double? (Yes; McCluster, 324 all-purpose yards, Louisville, 151 total net yards.) Will this game save Steve Kragthorpe's job? (No, no, no: Krag1N1 is a a zombie coach waiting for a merciful cricket bat to the back of the head, and an offensive specialist whose team averaged 2.8 yards a play on Saturday.) Should this game's records be burnt and expunged from the records of the sport itself? (No; history needs its warnings as well as its stories of heroism.) Who were the real heroes here? (The fans who sat through this. Salute!)

F is for Frogs. TCU had 32 first downs to Utah's 11, gave up only 64 yards rushing to Utah, and squirted digested red ants from its eyes in an exuberant and yet disturbing celebration in their 55-28 hammering of the Utes. This snaps a three game losing streak to Utah, puts them in the lead dog position of the BCS sled, and gives them the honor of being the official Team Most Screwed By The Major Conferences In This Year's BCS. It may just be talk radio blather, but Mountain West expansion and the negotiation of an automatic bid for the conference in the future can't happen soon enough. If the ACC gets an autobid, the Mountain West more than deserves a spot at the BCS feeding trough.

G is for Gutted. Thank you for appearing in the Big East, USF. Your appearance was both novel and spirited, but you have run out of points. Please exit Rutgers stadium while Little Jovi mocks you with his spirited air guitar work. The Bulls scored nada against Rutgers, effectively ending their season on a familiar note. (A long slow farting noise made by flapping the lips violently.)

H is for Hat. Desmond Howard donned a cowboy hat for the second time this year on Gameday. He looked ready to ride the range to rope cattle and the buxom, hard-drinkin' ladies of the Old West's dusty saloons. Fowler looked awkward, but at least admitted it openly: "Guys, I have to admit. This is a bit awkward for me." Between that and openly referring to Tennessee's quarterback as "Jonathan 'Straight Outta' Crompton," Fowler's rating in the Alphabetical for 2009 is far closer to A than it is to Z at this point.

I is for Integrity. How many South Carolina fans openly wondered who this quarterback named Service was, and why he looked so much like Stephen Garcia? Answer? At least seven, including one who wondered out loud "Why'd we start all those new guys against Florida, dangit?"

J is for Just. The fanbase just lying on the pavement right now wanting to be left alone: Michgian, whose team lost 45-24 to Wisconsin to fall to 1-6 in the Big Ten. Ohio State's coming this weekend. No, they're not mad. Just leave them alone, please.



K is for KIA: Mike Sanford, who was fired this weekend as UNLV's football coach. We'll always remember you for the good times, Mike, like when you refused to leave the field against Iowa State hoping against hope for a review that would undo a horrendous loss to a horrendous Iowa State team.


L is for Lobster. The book The Secret Life of Lobsters has more sex and violence in it that most episodes of True Blood, and has the added benefit of being slightly less embarrassing to trot out in conversation. Lobsters are social creatures, which is convenient for fishermen (who can count on a crowd surrounding baited traps) and for big, mean alpha lobsters, who in their prime can keep a whole harem of female lobsters and a cowed crew of competitors in check with their ability to wallop lesser crustaceans into line with their huge claws. (USC is the big lobster here. We swear there's a point.) Big alpha male lobsters face one competitive problem, something illustrated in vivid detail in the book. Lobsters must molt their shells, and when they do they are often too weak to stand. The researchers profiled in the book observe what happens in their lab when they arrive one morning to find their biggest lobster gone, and the remaining smaller lobsters suddenly strutting around the tank like prize peacocks. The videotape from the night before told the tale: it showed the biggest lobster molting, and then waiting helplessly at the end of the tank while the smaller, bullied lobsters crept along the bottom with murder on their mind. If you haven't watched the fourth quarter of the Stanford/USC game, you're missing some quality lobster vengeance. USC, wracked with injuries on defense, inexperience on offense, and an ungelled offensive coaching staff, lay crippled at the end of the tank, and lobster Harbaugh was all too happy to take advantage. Going for two to make 48-21 an even fifty is taking revenge, but missing it and then getting it anyway is something far, far beyond that.

M is for McClusterf---d Dexter McCluster deserves all due credit, but Tennessee's defensive Waterloo in Oxford is proof that no coaching staff or defense can trump injury. Tennessee had already lost three middle linebackers due to injury and Janzen Jackson to his involvement in whatever the hell happened at a Pilot gas station in Knoxville. Jackson's injury had to be the tipping point, since the Vols' defense finally broke underneath the weight of attrition and let Houston Nutt' offense run roughshod over them for their worst loss of the season.

N is for Neither Works On Sunday. The Cincinnati Bearcats won your typical late season conference game at home: tight, hard-fought, and to the untrained eye the sign of "a beatable team" with "a deceptive record." Never mind that they "outgained West Virginia 437-390 with their backup quarterback taking all but 4 of the passing attempts" and played a "a West Virgnia team still capable of quickening the heartrate when not shooting themselves in the foot." They'll still take hits in polls and debate this week due to the margins, which now start to matter here. If one corporation should get behind Cincy in the PR debate, it's Chick-Fil-A, who could really help out the Bearcats with some product tie-ins down the stretch. Because they have the same logo, you see?

O is for Overman. CJ Spiller: one passing TD, one rushing TD, and one reception for TD in a 43-23 saunter over NC State. A mediocre day for him, in other words, but sometimes they only feed him the regular unleaded when they take him to the pump before games against mediocre competition like NC State. 

P is for Pastoral. I was in Athens this weekend, and came away convinced of the truth and power of cliche. Ask a college football aficionado "What is the best college town?", and parrot-like they will respond "SQUAWK ATHENS SQUAWK." This usually means, like most universal opinions, that Athens is not the best college town, and that you have to make your own estimates and surveys before coming to a different and undoubtedly smarter, more correct judgment. In this case, however, broken clocks are right, and everyone is correct: Athens is the premiere college town in the known universe, and there is no real refutation of this available that is not total gibberish. It is inseparable from the campus due to proximity; architecturally consonant with the campus's Georgian stylings; arranged in a neat grid for maximum packing-in of bars, restaurants, and other student necessities; possessed of a nice mix of frat-boy booze troughs and hipster beer halls; warm; friendly; and finally, it has the Five Star Day Cafe, where they advertise their Kool Aid Flavor of the Day by color and serve fried green tomatoes in a sauce so good it must be made of pure evil and baby parts, because it cannot be legal in any of the fifty states.

Q is for Quarter, Granted. As Florida fan, this is treason, but I'm already guilty so why not press the case. Athens is nice, but Georgia fans are even nicer in person, and bear no resemblance to their online selves in the flesh. How do you know you're dealing with quality people? The answer is universal: THEY OFFER YOU DORITO SALAD: Pic of Dorito Salad. In addition to this, the fanbase showed superb humor for a collection of fans trodden upon by a miserable 5-4 season and a defensive coordinator who considers blitzing to be unspeakably rude. Points and kudos awarded all around to UGA fans. With the exception of the week leading up to the Cocktail Party, we love you all and your superior college town. (We didn't even mention the attractive ladies of Athens, because I'm old and that's creepy, but I just did, making me old and creepy. But yes: stunning in all directions. Not my type, because I saw no women carrying obvious knives or guns, but impressive nonetheless.)

R is for Reversal. Oh, Corso, WE FLIPPED THE SCRIPT ON YOU.


(HT: That Fan.)

S is for Simpsons Completion Theorem. Proposed: that all events depicted in The Simpsons will eventually become real in one proposed universe or another. Scoff if you will, but it's backed up by real science with supporting evidence. 

Example one:

And example two:

Your town will buy a monorail, your father will sell his soul to the devil for a donut, and your baby sister will accidentally shoot your father's boss. Todd Reesing threw that pass, by the way, and he threw it intentionally, because President Reesing makes no mistakes and will be the one to rescue us from the aliens with the help of Will Smith and Jeff Goldlblum.

T is for Too Many Recievers. The funniest moment in the Auburn/Georgia game: Lee Ziemba somehow drifting out for a pass in a five-wide formation for the Tigers, catching an insane pass from Chris Todd (who actually threw to someone wearing a jersey number starting with "7",)  and then turning upfield like he was ready to juke some fools out of their pants. I cannot tell you what happened next, because I was lying on the ground laughing at Guz Malzahn's pained expression caught on camera by ESPN, who in response looked like he'd been stabbed in the kidney. Remember Mel Brooks dictum: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." Auburn falling into an open sewer on Saturday night was, for one wondrous moment of fat guy football, "open sewer death funny."

V is for Vexed. PICTURE OF OLD MAN FLICKING OFF WORLD. Four straight losses and last place in the Coastal Division clearly have worn away the veneer of civility even from genteel UVA fans. Wine and cheese, my ass: they're clearly on the sorrow and Scotch diet at this point.

W is for Weis. He's effectively fired, so let's remember him the way he's want us to remember him:

"They’re going to have to learn about us, OK? Let them try to stop a pro-style offense, which has multiple personnel groups and multiple formations. Let’s see how they are going to do. They’ve had their advantage because I’ve come into recruiting late. Well, now it’s X’s and O’s time. Let’s see who has the advantage now."

Or this:

"Every game, you will have a decided schematic advantage."

Or this:

"You are what you are folks, and right now you’re a 6-5 football team. And guess what? That’s just not good enough. It’s not good enough for you. And it’s certainly not going to be good enough for me. So, if you think they hired me here to go .500, you…you got the wrong guy."

Charlie Weis as of today has the same winning percentage (71%) as Ty Willingham did at the date of his firing (71%).

X is for Xanadu. The estate of William Randolph Hearst, the palace referenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in "Kublai Khan," and the name of a 1980 film involving the following: --John Travolta singing --Roller Skating Greek muses --Disco --Olivia Newton John. If this sounds ridiculous, it is half as absurd at the notion of Bob Stoops going to Notre Dame. Charlie Weis dancing with Gene Kelly on roller skates would be as probable, and we mean Gene Kelly right now: dead, enbalmed Gene Kelly propped into a pair of roller skates.

Y is for Yeoman. As in the work done by Minnesota in beating D-1AA South Dakota State 16-13. You might say, "Say, Spencer: shouldn't Minnesota be winning that game anyway, and by large margins?" Why, yes, they should, but it was sporting of them to let them keep it that close. Because that's what they were doing. Right, Tim Brewster? Right? (Nod, damn you, nod!)

Z is for Zero-Sum Game. The type of game where a player's gains or losses come at an equal and inverse cost/benefit to the other players in the game. From now on out each teams' potential positioning advances or retreats with relation to another team's, a situation especially true for BCS insurgents TCU and Boise. In the early innings of the season, food was abundant, and the beasts of the college football landscape roamed freely and feasted. Winter is here, and every scrap of food will be a point of contest now: every spot in the polls, each bowl bid, and every available space on television or in print to lobby. Some sports end with a playoff. College football now ends with the equivalent of two debaters in a Lincoln-Douglas format rebutting each other while running at a full sprint. Mack Brown is getting his teeth whitened as we speak.