When Bill Snyder showed up in the Little Apple in 1989, Kansas State had experienced two winning seasons in 35 years (6-5-1 in 1982, 6-5 in 1970) and had gone just 4-50-1 in the past five years. He filled his staff with young, hungry assistant coaches, exploited what he felt was an untapped resource of nearby junior colleges, and piled on cupcake after cupcake in non-conference play to install confidence and a winning attitude. The Wildcats finished with a winning record in his third season, won their first bowl ever in his fifth, came within one win of the national title game in his 10th and won the Big 12 in his 15th.
This will surprise you, I'm sure, but I devoured and greatly enjoyed Moneyball when it was released in 2003. I didn't envision a popular movie emerging from it at the time, but I didn't see it with The Blind Side either; I evidently get too caught up in statistics and technicalities to notice that there is a pretty good human interest story staring me in the face. But that's fine -- I'm not a screenwriter.
Chris Petersen and Boise State utilize a clinically precise offense and the most unique home-field advantage in college football. They turn accurate, undersized quarterbacks into Heisman candidates, and they turn mean, tough s.o.b.'s with a crazy edge and a chip on their shoulder larger than their squatty frames into members of one of the best defensive lines in college football. They take away your speed advantage by constantly making you react to what they are doing. They are 64-5 since Petersen took over in 2006, 7-1 versus BCS conference teams and 8-3 versus ranked teams.
As I have dug myself deeper and deeper into the world of football statistics, I hear two terms often referenced in regard to what I do: Sabermetrics and Moneyball. Neither of them completely means what we tend to think they mean. For one thing, the "Saber" in Sabermetrics comes from "SABR," which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research. The term has as much to do with baseball as it does with statistics. For another, Moneyball was at its heart about the desire to exploit market inefficiencies and win with little money and few resources in a sport in which money rules. Oakland attempted to do that by milking everything they possibly could out of baseball statistics, but the approach itself was utilized as much because of the market itself, not just because of nerds with calculators trying to solve and defeat the sport.
Frank Beamer came to Virginia Tech from Murray State in 1987 and won just 24 games in his first six seasons. (He probably wouldn't have gotten a seventh in the Internet era, eh?) Eventually, he found a recipe for success based around game-changing special teams play, a swarming 4-4 defense and a deep stable of running backs. The Hokies made the national title game in 1999 and have won at least 10 games for seven consecutive seasons.
Perhaps even more than in Major League Baseball, power, money and resources matter in college football. The teams who have won in the past, win in the present and will probably win in the future. On average, those who bring in the most high-caliber recruits win the most games, and recruits tend to go to the schools that have already been winning games. The oligarchical ruling class rarely lets in new members. But programs who don't hang national championship banners from the 1920s or 1950s, keep figuring out new ways to win games.
With a desire to utilize the entire field, a complete lack of inhibition and an assistant coach who would eventually become rather high-profile himself, Hal Mumme became perhaps the father of the spread offense. After winning big at the NAIA (Iowa Wesleyan) and Division II (Valdosta State) levels, Mumme got his shot at the big-time; he was brought to Kentucky, a program that was consistently outgunned in the mighty SEC (the Wildcats had won more than six games in a season just once in 19 years). The Wildcats immediately began setting offensive records and went to back-to-back bowl games in his second and third seasons. (Mumme also recruited the Jeremy Brown of college football, a quarterback once described by ESPN's Sean Salisbury as "a biscuit short of three bills.") Mumme couldn't pull a complete turnaround in Lexington, but the aforementioned top assistant did pretty well, to say the least, running the offense they designed in Lubbock.
In all, there are not too many similarities between the sports of baseball and football. One constant, however, rings true: as in baseball, there are a million ways to win a football game. Because of the importance of both recruiting (recruiting rankings are almost as predictive of future success as recent play on the field) and money (big-time programs have enough of it to woo successful coaches from underdog schools), college football clearly does not take place on an even playing field. But inefficiencies still exist. And through creativity and innovation, coaches have long figured out that there are a million different ways to move the ball down the field (or stop the other team from doing the same), either through the air or on the ground.
TCU's Gary Patterson almost literally wrote the book on the 4-2-5 defense, so precisely defining each role within his alignment that the Horned Frogs have been able to absorb turnover in personnel and improve. Even in terms of advanced, schedule-adjusted statistics, TCU has fielded a top-20 defense for nearly a decade and a top-five unit for the last three years. They have won at least 11 games in six of the last eight seasons, at least ten in eight of the last 11, and beginning next year, their success will have resulted in their reintroduction to major conference residence.
What role do statistics play in college football's version of Moneyball? It is still unclear. Though teams have long figured out their own ways to evaluate their own and other teams' success, the fact is that the only group even more resistant to changes in approach and bookworm tendencies than than the stereotypical, old-school "baseball guy" is the stereotypical "football guy." Be they boosters or long-time coaches, they have long internalized that there is one way to win a football game, and attempts at change will be met with extreme resistance.
At Missouri, where the Tigers had experienced just two winning seasons in 17 years when he came to town, Gary Pinkel searches for the highest-caliber athletes in the smallest towns in Missouri, Texas and elsewhere, then figures out which position to teach them later. When they brought Danario Alexander out of Marlin, Texas (population: 6,000), they didn't know if he was a wide receiver or a linebacker. Turned out, he was a pretty good receiver. They were one win away from the national title game in 2007 and won 40 games between 2007 and 2010.
It is still quite noteworthy and unique when a coach searches out innovation through numbers. But that means that the same market inefficiencies that Billy Beane attempted to exploit a decade ago still very much exist in college football, and those who best figure out how to exploit it will win quite a few football games. Baseball has caught up to Billy Beane in a lot of ways, but there is simply no question that he changed the approach to winning baseball games. Who will do the same in the world of five-star recruits, tailgates and traditionalist fanbases? And when they figure out how to exploit statistics for wins, how will they do it?
The Morning Tailgate runs every weekday. Check out the archives.