The Wiz Of Odds: Speed kills. It also lies

Aug 19, 2009 |

Jay Christensen covered college football, among other sports, for the Los Angeles Times and produces the popular college football blog TheWizofOdds.com.

This much we know. Usain Bolt is a fast runner and the Ohio State Buckeyes are fast talkers.

Anybody who watched Bolt blaze 100 meters in a world-record 9.58 seconds in Berlin this past weekend has to wonder how fast the Jamaican sprinter can go. His performance was mind-boggling.

Bolt may be the stuff of legends, but his success may be perpetuating the stuff of myths.

Consider this: In Columbus, Ohio, Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor reportedly ran a 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds. Pryor’s stunning time wasn’t the result of some eager Ohio State staffer with a quick stopwatch thumb. His dash was apparently timed electronically, which produces a more reliable number.

Buckeyes players didn’t hesitate when asked to confirm the time, and even coach Jim Tressel contributed to the hype that followed the report.

“Let’s say it’s only 4.38 instead of 4.33,” Tressel told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It’s fast. . . . I assumed he’d be better than 4.5, but I’m not sure I was sitting there thinking he’d be 4.33.”

But come on, Tressel’s nose is growing faster than Pinocchio’s.

His comments only feed the myth that speed is better than power, and that often impacts the betting line. Consider that even with Pryor, Ohio State was a pedestrian 6-6 against the spread in 2008.

Bettors should put Pryor’s “time” in perspective.

In 1988, Ben Johnson set the world record in the 100 meters at the Seoul Olympics, clocking 9.79. According to a 2005 story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, timing officials broke the race into increments and determined that Johnson cruised through 40 yards in 4.38 seconds.

Johnson not only had the benefit of a slight tailwind that day, he was using the anabolic steroid Stanozolol.

If Pryor is really as fast as people in Columbus claim, perhaps he should quit football and challenge Bolt for the title of World’s Fastest Man.

The point is that college football players and teams are never as fast as advertised. Each team has some fast players. They also have big ones who can push you around. And it’s often just as easy to run over an opponent as it is around them.

There is no truer test of speed vs. power than the Southeastern Conference vs. the Big Ten. Teams from each league meet annually in the Capital One and Outback bowl games.

In the last seven Capital One Bowls, the Big Ten has a 4-3 ATS edge. It’s even more pronounced in the Outback, where the Big Ten is 5-2 ATS. That’s Big Ten Power 9, SEC Speed 5.

Still, coaches, players, broadcasters and fans can’t stop talking about the so-called need for speed. It’s a difference-maker, they say, and the reason teams from the South have ruled college football in recent years.

Jonathan Chait, who wrote about the Southern speed myth in 2002 for Slate, looked at the 10 fastest 100-meter times posted by high school runners for two years in Michigan and Florida.

The Florida kids averaged 10.77 seconds, the Michigan kids 10.78. Two of the Michigan kids went on to play in the Big Ten.

Chait looked at data comparing times at the NFL scouting combine of wide receivers from Northern teams against their Southern counterparts. The Northerners, on average, ran the 40 in 4.502, and the Southerners in 4.548.

But speed somehow always gets credit. In 1992, Nebraska made a concerted effort to recruit faster players after a series of embarrassing bowl losses.

Chait writes: “Fans and reporters breathlessly reported the 40-yard dash times of the Nebraska defense, and when Nebraska rolled off convincing bowl victories over Miami, Florida and Tennessee, held up the program as an example of how a Northern team learned to emulate the Southern style.

“In other words, if a Southern team beats Nebraska, it’s because Nebraska couldn’t match its Southern speed. If Nebraska beats a Florida team, it’s because it imitated the Southern methodology. Either way, the Southern-speed view of college football is vindicated.”

The speed myth often starts early in a player’s career. In 2004, Glen Coffee was preparing for his senior season at Ft. Walton Beach High in Florida. He attended a Nike camp and was timed in 4.44 in the 40, which helped him secure a scholarship from Alabama.

At the 2009 NFL scouting combine, Coffee had apparently lost a step. He ran a 4.58. So what happened? Coffee’s effort at the Nike camp was, of course, hand timed by some recruiting hack. His combine run was electronically timed.

As Chris Hutson, who operates the site Heisman Pundit, stated earlier this year, players don’t necessarily get faster in college, but they do get bigger.

“Strength coaches are always going to claim that guys will get faster as they go through their programs. That’s how they justify their employment,” Huston wrote.

“But in the end, it’s just basic physics. Players grow naturally to a point before their size and speed hit a plateau, then growth must be manufactured. In college, they put on extra muscle or bad weight and tend to get slower, not faster.”

So size does matter?

Of course it didn’t matter in Jack and the Beanstalk, but we all recognize that was a myth.

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