Clardy's Corner: Stanford's Moneyball

I'm an Oakland A's fan. My girlfriend's a Brad Pitt fan. So when she was in town from the Bay Area last weekend and wanted to see a movie, it didn't take long to figure out which one to go see. We went to check out Moneyball.

The movie, like the Michael Lewis book that inspired the flick, focuses on A's general manager Billy Beane and his quest to replace his three biggest stars. Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen all left the A's after the 2001 season, all for richer contracts from richer teams that the A's simply couldn't match.

(If you haven't seen it yet, go check it out. For me, it was cool to go back to a time when my A's were actually relevant and fun to watch. It was even cooler to see and hear my friend Greg Papa. The topper, though, was hearing Bill King's calls again. No matter the sport, no radio play-by-play man will ever be able to touch Bill King. Ever. Back to the Corner.)

When most professional teams are stocking a roster, they merely judge a player by his worth. As in how much money they had to pay to get that player. But as the A's were reinventing themselves, they decided to judge players by their value. As in how their performance in critical areas meshed with the skill sets they felt were most important in winning games. And as they tried to figure out how to compete with baseball's big boys on a pee-wee payroll, they tried to find the players whose value vastly outweighed their worth.

While there is no free agency in college football (well, actually, there is… it's called recruiting), there are some similarities between how the A's had to change their approach to what Stanford Football has to do to compete on a yearly basis. The pool of players the A's could draw from was smaller because of their payroll. The pool of players Stanford can draw from is smaller because of its academic approach. Therefore, both must find players who fit their system, and have more value than worth.

After the 2009 season, Stanford's version of Jason Giambi left for the NFL, placing them in a situation similar to what Billy Beane faced in late 2001. Based on what Andrew Luck had shown that year, few had questions about what how he would be able to contribute in 2010. But how, many questioned, would the Card be able to replace Toby Gerhart, his 1,871 yards rushing, and his 28 total touchdowns?

Even though the Card had a capable stable of running backs, none of those players individually had the same worth that Gerhart did. This caused some in the media to fret because Stanford didn't have one guy to replace The Guy. Obviously, this meant there was no way the Cardinal running game would have been anywhere near as effective in 2010.

So what happened? Stanford's top four running backs (Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney, and Jeremy Stewart) rolled up 1,937 yards and 27 total touchdowns.

Conventional thinking in today's college football suggests that only one running back can carry an offense. Last year's Cardinal bucked that way of thinking, and they succeeded without their best player from the season before. Obviously other factors go into it as well (the offensive line and Owen Marecic performing at the top of their games chief among them), but the bottom line is that Stanford performed better without Toby, both on the stat sheet and in the win column. Those guys proved their value.

In that vein, it may be hard to find a more undervalued player in college football than Stepfan Taylor. There is no doubt that his teammates and coaches know full well what Taylor's value to the team is. But in the conversation of the Pac-11's best running backs, his name rarely gets mentioned. All he does is get critical yards, move the chains, and have some of the quietest 100-yard rushing days you've ever seen.

Now, this works much more easily with running backs and receivers than it does with quarterbacks. Of course, Stanford is going to have to re-learn this lesson at the end of this season. And everyone knows the value Andrew Luck has for this team, both inside and outside the program.

In 2012, is Stanford going to be able to replace whatever numbers Andrew Luck puts up this season? It's highly unlikely at best, and probably a flat-out no. And I think it would be foolish to expect the next guy, whether it's Brett Nottingham or whomever, to do just that. But finding the QB with the most value is obviously going to be the biggest piece of the puzzle for the Card next year.

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Speaking of value, right now, I think AP pollsters are undervaluing Stanford. Seventh? Really? Behind Boise State and Wisconsin?

Yes, it's probably strength of competition. You could argue that Stanford's biggest test so far this year has been Arizona (and look what they had to do this week). That's a fair argument. Almost every other team ahead of Stanford in the polls has already played tough competition in tough circumstances. Stanford has yet to do that.

But right now, I think Stanford beats those Boise State and Wisconsin. If Stanford and Oklahoma State played each other ten times, neither team wins more than six. I don't think the Cardinal beat Oklahoma, LSU, or Alabama…but I know they put up a fight.

Last year, after Stanford beat Notre Dame, I thought the Cardinal were overrated and overvalued by the pollsters. This year, I think they're being undervalued. But the Cardinal, and the rest of their players, can keep proving their worth by winning every Saturday.

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RANDOM PAC-11 THOUGHTS

Once Max Bergen blocked that field goal, scooped it up, and scored by himself, you just knew that game was over, didn't you?...

My funny feeling about this weekend's game in Pullman hasn't gone away…

On 4th and 12 and trailing by three with less than two minutes remaining, Chad Hutchinson rolled out and uncorked a deep pop fly to left. Down field, Andre Kirwan outleaped two Oregon defenders and hauled in the 49-yard prayer. Kevin Miller booted the tying field goal, then knocked through the game winner in overtime for the 27-24 Cardinal win. Was that really 15 years ago today? Wow…

Oregon scored the fewest points they have tallied in a home game in nearly two years against cal last week. In unrelated news, the Ducks scored 43 points against cal last week…

Not a Pac-11 thought, but… I liked Aaron Rodgers when he was at cal. But I didn't think he'd look anything like this as a pro. If you put together a case for Rodgers as the best QB in the NFL right now, I wouldn't put up much of an argument against it…

Not a Pac-11 thought, but… Al Davis was the last great football man. That whole generation of men who truly made the NFL what it is today, the true giants of the game—Walsh, Lombardi, Landry, Rozelle, Halas, Paul Brown—they're all gone now. Even though I grew up a Broncomaniac, I always respected the Raiders and the brand he built. Rest in peace, Al. We will never see anyone like you again…

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CLARDY'S CORNER INBOX

Good discussion from last week's Corner. And a nice note from James from parts unknown, who notes among other things…

"I loved your column, and could not agree more…Call out the fans. And call them out often…But, say what? [Stanford's] not an elite program on the field? What the hell does Stanford have to do?... Dead on today, except for your view of the team."

To me, an elite program on the field is one that you can pencil into a conference championship game or BCS bowl every year. Oregon is there. Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, and (in most years) Texas are there. Stanford isn't there yet. We have a very good team this year, one of the best in the country. But until we do this a few years in a row, I can't consider us an elite program on the field. Not yet.

An elite program off the field has the facilities, resources, and fan support that are second to none. Stanford has the facilities, and the resources don't seem to be a problem. But can any school whose stadium is only two-thirds full at kickoff (for a nationally televised game) truly say that it has elite fan support?

The good news, as I mentioned, is that trend appears to be changing. But it needs to happen for games that don't involve Oregon, cal, or Notre Dame for me to truly believe it. It didn't happen last week.

Last week's Corner sparked plenty of reaction on the BootBoard Plus, and I certainly appreciate and enjoy the discourse. But let me reiterate my overall point. If you show up to the stadium every week regardless of time, temperature, and opponent, don't take last week's Corner personally because you are not the problem.

If you live within a reasonable distance of Stanford Stadium, call yourself a Stanford fan, and have the means to get tickets every week, yet you only show up when the time, temperature, or opponent suit you, then you are the problem. Get to the stadium. On time.

Got a thought on this Corner? Drop me a line either at my Scout.com inbox (username: troyc)... or e-mail me at troyc@thebootleg.com...

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PAC-11 PICKS

Last week I picked a game by coin flip…and I almost nailed it, missing by just one point. Just saying…

U$C @ cal (Thursday). Does cal even play on Saturdays anymore? Anyway, if cal can let Colorado's Paul Richardson go buck wild on their secondary, what chance can I give them against Matt Barkley and Robert Woods? Unless cal forces turnovers, I like U$C by 12.

Colorado @ Washington. The Huskies aren't as formidable a foe as the Cardinal are, but that doesn't mean it gets much better for the Buffaloes this week. I like Washington by 18.

Arizona State @ Oregon. This could be a Pac-11 title game preview. I like Arizona State's chances on defense, but I don't think they have the discipline to get it done. I like Oregon by 15.

Last week: 3-1 (straight-up), 2-2 (ATS).
This year: 7-6 (straight-up), 8-5 (ATS).
Last year: 23-13 (straight-up), 16-20 (ATS).


Troy Clardy is in his 19th year of following the Cardinal as a columnist, broadcaster, and announcer. In its 10th season of Cardinal commentary, Clardy's Corner appears Wednesdays during the college football regular season on TheBootleg.com. You can also check him out online at TroyClardy.com, or e-mail him at troyc@thebootleg.com.


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