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David vs. Goliath in College Football

Phil Spector Malcolm Gladwell's piece in the New Yorker this week on strategies underdogs use to win has various blogs chiming in on the subject. Gladwell's main point is it's beneficial to underdogs in basketball to use a full-court press because it's a high-risk, high-reward strategy that most Goliath teams aren't used to.

This works in small doses but isn't about to win underdogs any championships. Look at my favorite college basketball team, the Grinnell Pioneers. Every couple years I drive 10 hours to tiny Grinnell, Iowa, to see David Arsenault's D3 Pioneers play.

Why in God's name would I do this? Well, I'm kind of insane. That and Grinnell has this philosophy: Shoot 100 times per game, at least 50 of which are three-pointers and play full-court press D for almost the whole game. And after every minute that comes off the clock, sub in five new players ("Line change, Grinnell.").

If you haven't seen it, you have to. I'm hoping when I go up to Iowa City to see the Hokies in the ACC/Big Ten challenge the Pioneers have a home game the day before or day after.

But even Grinnell's best teams have not had success in the conference or NCAA tournament. The Pioneers don't have the best players in the country, but probably have the best conditioned. That's how they beat a lot of the teams they play.

But eventually Grinnell runs into a team more talented than they are that know how to beat their press and are good at defensive rebounding. And if the Pioneers have an off night behind the arc it's goodnight Irene.

And another reason they lose is the reason the high-risk, high-reward strategies don't usually work in football. When Grinnell played D1 Drake a few years ago, they got pounded. When asked what the biggest difference was in the game, it was said Drake had players much taller than Grinnell that could see over the press and find the open man.

And size is the reason I think the high-risk, high reward stuff doesn't work in college football. You can't hide if your players are smaller and slower than your opponent.

In college basketball you can go small against Georgetown and try to get up and down the court as quick as you can. You can run a stalling half-court offense to try and slow down North Carolina.

But in college football you have to play at least 22 guys why have more specialized positions. Smart Football makes an excellent point that the hurry-up offense are actually an advantage to Goliath teams because you decrease the variance.

The chance of getting only heads and no tails in five coin flips is much higher than it is in a hundred -- i.e. the impact of the law of large numbers or regression to the mean. If Oklahoma has significantly more talent, better schemes, and everything else than the underdog, then the more plays it run the more likely it is to exhibit its raw dominance over the underdog; the underdog is less likely to "steal" a few good plays and get the heck out of dodge.

The best strategy for underdogs in college football is to try and control the ground game to shorten the game and then do a few high-risk behaviors on defense like blitzing to force the favorite out of its comfort zone.

This is why I like what Virginia Tech does. While we are quickly closing the talent gap in recruiting, there is still a gap between us and the major college football powers. That's why a dominant running game combined with a solid defense that puts pressure on the quarterback has worked so well for Frank Beamer.

But we're quickly getting the point where the Hokies are no longer the underdogs with less talent and little to lose. That's why I think you'll be seeing a more up-tempo style from Tech as the season wears on. You saw this a little big last year with the introduction of the Wild Turkey formation. I think you'll see more plays like that as Ryan Williams and Logan Thomas develop.

Bryan Stinespring has shown he's willing to make adjustments to the offense based on what's available to him. I didn't think he was capable of it, which is why I was stunned last year when we trotted out Greg Boone at quarterback during the Maryland game last year.

While our primary offensive philosophy will not change, the personnel we've brought in during the last three years will allow us to do more offensively than we have been capable of. Also, we've may not be Goliath just yet, but we're definitely not David.



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ACC and Opponents

- Dissecting Annette's latest dispatches. (Tomahawk Nation)
- I still think they'll go to 18 conf. games when the TV contracts are up. (Yet Another...)
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- Names that bring back childhood tournament memories: Rusty LaRue. (Blogger So Dear)
- Who Winfield wants to see on GT's football schedule. (The Legacyx4)

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- If you were a Lost fan in OKC you were SOL last night. (The Lost Ogle)
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- Amalie Benjamin (who I love and in a heartbeat would give up my hard-drinking, road-tripping bachelor ways for) on the arrival of Daniel Bard. (Extra Bases)