Over my recent vacation, I spent some time on the beach reading Vincent Gagliano's The Art of War for Beginners. For those of you who don't know Vince, he formerly wrote at a Florida blog I enjoyed visiting called Orange and Blue Hue; occasional GABA visitor Gatorpilot was the site's founder. Vince's new book uses sports and chess analogies to bring the military concepts of Sun Tzu's classic military treatise down to earth, so to speak.
While reading the book, a particular section jumped out at the Gamecock fan in me. While discussing Sun Tzu's ideas regarding the relative importance of ordinary versus exceptional forces, Vince uses an analogy regarding the importance of superstars on athletics teams. He cites author Dave Berri, a sports economist whose book Wages of Wins analyzes executive decision-making policies in the four major professional sports. One of Berri's claims regards an analysis of the NBA. Berri uses a statistical formula to determine that from 1980-2007, every single team that won an NBA championship had a player who was at least three times as productive as the average player. Berri concludes that "An NBA team must have one player who is truly exceptional to take home the title. Or in other words, teamwork is nice and wonderful, but you need a Super-Star to be a champion." There has been a great deal of controversy regarding this claim, which seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. That said, there is undoubtedly a kernel of truth involved.
This analysis made me wonder to what extent this argument applies to college football. South Carolina, of course, has star power in spades. Both Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery are legitimate Heisman contenders. We have a distinguished, if beleaguered, senior quarterback in Stephen Garcia. On defense, we have All-American candidates in Devin Taylor and Stephon Gilmore. Despite all this, one of the knocks against Carolina going into this season is that even though we have elite top-end talent, we lack the depth that other powerhouses have. However, if Berri's theory holds true in football and the team is less important than the stars, the Gamecocks have a very reasonable argument for being among the very best teams in the land.
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Of course, this formula likely doesn't apply to college football in the same way as it applies to the NBA. As Berri suggests, stars skew competition in basketball because of the importance in the sport of having talented, athletic tall guys; this population is a limited resource, and only certain teams get a piece of the pie. There are other reasons, as well, why this analogy probably doesn't hold. Football is, in short, much more of a team sport than basketball.
That said, I do think one could reasonably hypothesize (and no, I'm not the one to run the metrics on this) that having a runningback like Lattimore has a huge effect on games won. As TSK points out, Lattimore had a huge effect on third-down conversion rate, a solid predictor of success for its value in pointing to a team's ability to score points and eat clock. If any player exemplifies the effect a superstar can have on football success, it may be Lattimore. That's good news for Carolina, with Lattimore poised to be even better in 2011. Moreover, to bring the discussion back around to Sun Tzu and strategy, it seems that Steve Spurrier knows exactly how to use his exceptional force. It was clear that Spurrier leaned on Lattimore in our two biggest SEC East games last year, leading to major wins over Georgia and Florida. Look for that to again be Spurrier's strategy in 2011.