Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Art of Scheduling



I'll have a breakdown of what I saw last night later on, most of which is x and o stuff, personnel, and such. For now, I want to address the more fundamental issue of scheduling and what these types of games have exposed about this program under Tedford. Make no mistake, I am not blaming the loss on scheduling. But clearly Cal under Tedford cannot handle these types of non-conference games and Tedford needs to recognize that. If he can't, Barbour needs to check him and step in, because these losses are momentum killers for a program trying to establish itself nationally.

So two things there: (1) why shouldn't Cal schedule these games, and (2) what kind of non-conference games should Cal schedule?

1. Why Cal shouldn't schedule these kinds of non-conference games.

First off, for whatever reason, Tedford can't seem to get his players ready for these non-conference games where Cal is favored. By "ready," sometimes it's lack of focus and motivation. Sometimes it's crappy game plans that put them in terrible position during games, leaving them shocked when what they're doing isn't working against a perceived lesser opponent. Sometimes it's lack of proper adjustments when it becomes clear the team has underestimated or poorly planned for an opponent and things are going badly. Sometimes, it's a combination. Whatever it is, Tedford and his staff seem to really step on their dicks in these non-conference games.

And don't get me wrong: it's not that his teams are taking other teams lightly. If anything, they are over-stating how good the other team is. Rather, it's that they aren't coming in with the right mindset and preparation. It seems like it's always something different specifically, but it's always the same general thing.

Letting Da'Rell Scott run wild vs. MD.
Letting Robert Meachem run wild vs. Tenn.
Letting Kaepernick run wild vs. Nev.
Throwing pick six vs. Nev.
Letting Decker have a career day vs. Minn.
Not matching the other team's intensity in one or more phases.
Being unable to run the ball on the road...ever.
The list goes on and on.

Second, and this is really not Tedford's fault, teams always seem geeked up to play Cal. Cal always seems to be ranked and hyped, and always favored in these non-conference games. Opposing players and coaches always seem to quoted as saying Cal is a benchmark game for them. And for whatever reason, these teams always seem to be coming off something disappointing and trying to prove that they're back. MD coming off the MTSU loss. Tenn coming off the disappointing end of the prior season. Nevada trying to break the streak of losing to BCS teams.

But even though this is not Tedford's fault, he needs to realize this, and either figure out how to overcome being the target, the way coaches like Carroll are able to (which is really difficult to do, and frankly he's shown he can't do it); or, more reasonably, Cal needs to call a spade a spade and stop scheduling these effing games. By "these games," I'll explain in a minute.

Third, and people need to accept this, Cal does not have the talent across the board to overcome the two aforementioned issues. I've said for years that until Cal gets an all-conference caliber QB and dominating OL (or finds another offense that can churn out the hard yards), they can forget about winning the conference. And again, while recruiting success is on Tedford, this is less a complaint about lack of talent, and more about recognizing your limitations.

Cal is a decently talented, athletic team. But they lack elite players at critical positions, namely the positions that are critical components of almost every play: QB, OL, LB. And they have for some time. The one "brick and mortar" area in which they excel talent-wise is DL. WR, corner, safety, TE, and even RB, are not enough, because those players can be taken out of plays, and are so reliant on other things happening. It is easier to neutralize Jahvid Best or Keenan Allen than a dominant OL or a great QB. OL and QB are involved critically in every play. So are LBs.

These are the players you lean on when you walk into a trap game, when you need to throw cold water on a hot opponent. And Cal doesn't have them. Again, Tedford and Barbour need to recognize this and schedule accordingly.

2. What kinds of games should Cal schedule (and not schedule)?

Marquis, historically top-15 programs, or cupcakes. Period. No A- teams, no B+ teams, no B- teams. A teams and C teams, nothing in between. No Fresno States, no Marylands, no Northwesterns, no Texas Techs, no Kentuckys, no North Carolina States, no Georgia Techs, no Kansases, no West Virginias, no BYUs, no Nevadas, no Utahs. You get the idea.

Two asterisks: Boise and TCU are currently A teams, and are top-15 teams. But I don't care what everyone says, there is still very little mileage out of beating them, versus a stigma, however minor, from losing to them. And I still believe they hold a strange mental advantage over non-conference opponents. Everyone still looks shocked and frustrated when these teams beat them.

Cal should be scheduling the following only:

Big 10: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State
Big 12: Oklahoma, Texas
SEC: Florida, LSU, Alabama, Georgia
Independent: Notre Dame
ACC: None
Big East: None
Mid-Majors: historically bottom half of conference. Examples: UNLV, Utah State, San Jose State, North Texas, etc.
1-AA: historically not in FCS playoffs.

Why these teams and not others?

First, wins sell recruits. They are hard enough to come by in conference, and Cal is good for at least 2-3 conference losses a year. 9-3 or 10-2 sounds a lot better than 8-4. Recruits don't care that you didn't play anyone, as long as you win.

On the other hand, if they see you lose on national TV to anyone other than a marquis program, you highly risk losing that recruit.

Second, if Cal happens to finish second in conference one year, the only slim chance they have of going to a BCS bowl is to be 10-2. If you're second in conference, you've probably got two conference losses the way the parity is right now. You can't afford a third non-conference loss if the goal is a high BCS ranking.

Third, the hit from losing on national TV to Nevada or Maryland is far greater proportionately than the bump from beating them on national TV. No one is going to say Cal is "for real" if they win these games. But they will write them off in heartbeat if they lose like this.

Fourth, if you're going to go in with a higher risk of loss, let it be where you're the underdog, where you'll get good exposure, and where you'll actually get some mileage out of playing well even in defeat. This means teams like Alabama, Florida, Ohio State. Look how much mileage Tedford has gotten out of the 2004 SC game. Seriously, the credibility Tedford earned from that game still hasn't completely rubbed off six years later. And he lost.

Fifth, and finally, wins, even over Sally Ann teams, build confidence. Confidence is so important, and when you get some, you have to capitalize on it. What you want is for that confidence to be an asset, not a liability. If you're playing someone you don't know how to prepare for the next week, or are not familiar with, it can be dangerous to feel confident from wins over weak teams, because it may cause you to underestimate your next opponent. But if you're playing Oregon State next week, then you know your opponent, so you know how to keep your head in check. In that case, it's good to have some confidence.

Plus, a record is a record. And wins are always better than losses. It's always better from a confidence standpoint to be 3-0 against weak teams than 2-1. Ask any Cal player if they'd trade that loss for a win over Citadel right now, and they'd tell you they would.

The bottom line is this. Cal has gone national in recruiting. They've raised their profile the last 8 years. And for some reason, Cal only needs to blow people out and win some games, and they get a bump in rankings. If they want to cash in on this and keep raising their profile, and getting more elite recruits so they can get to that elusive Rose Bowl or BCS game, wetting themselves on national TV early in the season is not the way to do it.

12 comments:

abraham said...

Cant agree with you anymore my friend. Funny this reminds me of a conversation i had in coffee shop a couple of years ago. i said " i hate Utah and Boise State". My friends asked "Why?" to which I replied "because they are very good". They laughed. Point I was trying to make, albeit badly, was that there is nothing to be gained from playing teams like that by a BCS conference team, win or lose. These are team that are perceived to be weak and often underrated but good enough to beat you if you dont take care of business. So yeah totally with you Scott. On a more technical note would you explain to me why Browner kept diving into the back field time and time again, drive after drive, with not sign of adjustment from or DC? What did you think of Conte at safety?

SD said...

Abe,

I'll get to Browner (and the rest of the LBs), trust me. As for Conte, I just haven't seen enough. It's hard to watch the secondary as the play unfolds because the camera cuts off the backfield. Let's see how he does vs. UofA, which is a real passing offense.

Avinash said...

SD Golden Bear,

Interesting points. I want to point out one thing. Sandy scheduled this game, partly to get the two-for-one home deal. Tedford indicated he had no part in scheduling the Cal-Nevada game in the local Reno radio pregame show and was very concerned about playing this game there. So some of the blame for this must be pointed at Sandy if you are annoyed by the fact the Bears were in Reno to begin with.

abraham said...

Avinash,

You know that makes me feel both good and bad at the same time. On the one hand it makes me feel better to know that our HD is not behind such a poor decision that puts our program in a no win situation. On the other hand the fact that our AD, who after all is in charge of all operations, is the one responsible for this action makes me feel hopeless because after all, as SD himself suggested above, she is suppose to be the solution if Tedford was behind this. Maybe we need to create a special directorial position in charge of football operation only, kind of like USC just did to deal with their 'lack of institutional control' issues...oh yeah I forgot we got, no money.

pompusone2000 said...

Agree. Problem is, using your same logic, top programs shouldn't schedule Cal.

Anonymous said...

My Oh My, the excuses are rampant here! Good luck creating that *perfect* schedule you seem to need in order to protect your program and notch 10+ wins a year.

"Excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure."

Anonymous said...

Did Sandy schedule this game as a favor to Nevada Athletic Director who is a female?

Richard Hourula said...

Major college programs do not play non conference road games at smaller schools like New Mexico State, Colorado State or Nevada. Cal did. They got away with the first two because those were really weak teams, but Nevada is a strong program. There is nothing to gain and a lot to lose by playing small NC teams on the road. NC road games should be at places like Tennessee, Ohio State, Texas. Smaller schools either come to your yard or you don't play them at all.
The bigger question I have is this, when did Nevada or Utah or Oregon State (all schools that beat us up in the past 12 months) have a recruiting class to match ours in the past eight years? When you lose to U$C you can always say: "whattaya expect with all the talent they bring in?" But there's no such excuse when going against a school like Nevada. Does this mean we're just getting out-coached?
The most discouraging aspect of Friday night the discovery that once again our O-Line is not up to snuff. Unless something dramatic changes there, Cal is looking at a long season.

Dan C said...

Exactly as Pompus mentioned above, it's difficult for a team like Cal to schedule top programs because they actually apply the logic suggested. I distinctly remember during the 2006/2007 series with Tennessee hearing multiple Vols fans comment that Cal wasn't supposed to any good and they scheduled the game just so they could tap the California recruiting market.

The other thing is that the top programs really don't like home and home agreements. They like to beat up on FCS opponents at home b/c their fans like it, it produces money for the program (ticket sales, etc.) and they know that if they win out they're going to a BCS bowl, regardless of how weak their non-conference is.

Now you could say that if the big programs won't play us, that's fine and we should just play cupcakes. But I'm always a bit worried about this approach because of the last point in the above paragraph. The top programs have enough name recognition that if they have a good record, they know they'll get the votes - no matter who they beat out of conference. For various reasons people feel more comfortable voting for those teams.

That was one of my big takeaways from 2004, the Aaron Rodgers glory year... In that season, Cal had only one loss, on the road to what was the hands-down the best team in the country. That was the SC team that destroyed Oklahoma 55-19 in the national championship. What's more, Cal lost by only one score and that was the only home game that SC won by less than 5 TDs. Yet even that amazing season didn't get Cal to a BCS bowl.

One of my takeaways from that season was that that playing against cupcake teams undermines the BCS hopes of your everyday program, but it doesn't seem to for the perennial powerhouses. A 10-2 second place team in the Pac-10 will not go to a BCS bowl. If the ’04 Bears didn’t go, no team will. There will definitely be an asshole like Mack Brown on a marketing road show to lobby for votes and a weak non-conference may just give him more ammunition.

I guess ultimately, these games are scheduled far enough in advance that you don't really know what opponent will show up when you schedule the game. And there are relatively few teams like Washington State, which are consistently and reliably at the bottom. Nobody could confuse Maryland '08 or Minnesota '09 for conference powerhouses and yet we had problems with both. Both of those teams were basically 0.500 teams. I think the one thing games like that may buy you with national coverage is this – if you win big and in exciting fashion, you own the espn highlight reel and people start talking about your program. If you win 14-7, it gets you nothing, but if you win while putting up 50 points and have an exciting playmaker like Jahvid, you get air time.

Now, I agree Nevada doesn’t fall into this description of a weak team and was risky scheduling for various reasons (quirky offense, senior QB, short week to prepare the D, etc.), but we did get the two home games out of it. The thing I would love to see from our schedule is a bit more thought about things we can control. For example, flying out to Maryland one day before a noon kickoff was a killer for a west-coast team. Playing at Washington in December is a bad idea for a California team used to moderate weather (I believe last year’s game was rescheduled to facilitate a bye week, right?).

This may all be academic since everything will change with the impending move to the Pac-12. How will the larger conference with potential playoff change scheduling strategy?

Anonymous said...

All we need is a good QB. Forget the OL, forget the schedule, forget the LBs. The lousy, inconsistent, unconfident play of the QB brings the whole team down and makes them play in the same tentative manner. I know this argument is beating a dead horse, but let's not lose sight of the fact that all our hopes rose when Rodgers was QB. It's been nothing but disappointment since then even though we've gotten better players overall because for some reason Tedford is bad at evaluating QBs and we end up with ones from the second tier. I hope Hindler will be the exception.

Anonymous said...

Our mistake was scheduling Maryland to start the gamevat noon instead of late afternoon or evening. The same with Minnesota. Unless you have played in 90 degree weather with 90% humitity you don't know what to expect. Top teams from the conferences you listed don't want to come out to California. Just try and get Florida to go out of state to play an OOC game. Our Citadel game was UC Davis. With only three OOC games two of them won't be with FCS schools. You article was so full of wishful thinking!

Jacob said...

Your comments regarding what would be an optimum out-of-conference schedule make perfect sense. I'll be bold enough to challenge your thoughts on the perceived lack of talent this Fall. In addition to the insane depth at RB, we have finally got 3 credible WRs (Jones, Allen, Ross). While I'll unhappily agree that Pendergast's defense was caught flat-footed by a remarkably mobile QB, at the start of the second half our defense shut Nevada down.

That brings us to our one big liability: our quarterback. As the momentum of the game is changing, Riley throws a pick 6.

Comparing the two quarterbacks leaves us with a clear picture of one great quarterback vs. a wannabe. Tempting as it is to use the comparison to show that Riley lacks ability, I will refrain to do so. What he lacks is a measure of his own abilities, and a wish to make that one great play that turns the momentum of the game. Instead of relying on the meat and potatoes of short accurate passes and quick hand offs to aforementioned great running backs, Riley desperately wants to make that one stellar td pass. He'll spend agonizingly long seconds in the pocket focusing blindly on one receiver going deep. At best he signals his attentions and makes sure the receiver is well covered. At worst we get to enjoy the statue of a quarterback getting sacked again by an opponent that appears to be running right into his line of sight.

What we saw at Nevada was the difference a quarterback makes: Kaepernick made up for the deficiencies of his offense with great runs, great fakes and moving quickly away from a collapsing pocket. Riley made poor use of the time afforded him in the pocket, threw inaccurately and ruined any element of surprise by his single minded focus on his intended target.

My hope for the remaining season is a QB that turns pragmatic and focuses on plays that help move the chains rather than on a moment of glory.

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