09/14/2005 11:00PM

Some stats prove nothing but blarney

Email

LAS VEGAS - Sports have always been about stats and records. Statistics are kept on every game, and record-holders are applauded and honored.

For handicappers, it's important to differentiate between meaningful stats and the trivial. In today's world of 24-hour cable sports channels, sports talk radio, and the Internet, we are exposed to more statistics than ever, and records are broken every day, including many that we never knew existed.

One such statistic has gotten a lot of media attention the past week, since Notre Dame defeated Michigan to start the season 2-0. It's one of those meaningless stats when it comes to handicapping, but the sheer absurdity that it has gotten so much media play, and been pounded into so many sports fans' heads, makes it a perfect example of how misleading statistics and records can be.

I have heard it at least a dozen times on television and radio and have also seen it cited in newspapers and Internet accounts on the Irish. It goes something like this: "Charlie Weis is the first Notre Dame coach since Knute Rockne to win his first two games on the road."

If you've watched SportsCenter or any other sports show this week, I'm sure you have heard it, too.

On face value, that sounds impressive, but it's a matter of context. Most people hear that and think Weis is the first Irish coach since Rockne to win his first two road games, but that's not what the stat is saying. It's saying that Weis's first two games were on the road, and he won them both.

Do you know how many Notre Dame coaches since Rockne have had to go play at another school for their first two games? One. Charlie Weis.

No other Irish coach since Rockne has been forced to play his first two games at another school. Making the stat even more misleading, most have won their first two times on the road.

Tyrone Willingham won his first two road games in 2002 (they just happened to be the fourth and sixth games of the year), as did Dan Devine (1975), Ara Parseghian (1964), Terry Brennan (1954), Hugh Devore (1945), Ed McKeever (1944), Frank Leahy (1941 and again in his second tenure in 1946), and Hunk Anderson (1931). Anderson was the very next coach after Rockne, and he won his first two road games, they just didn't happen to be his first two games.

Weis joins that group. The list of coaches since Rockne who have not won their first two road games with Notre Dame is the more exclusive club: Bob Davie (1997), Lou Holtz (1986), Gerry Faust (1981), Joe Kuharich (1959), and Elmer Layden (1934).

And the fact Rockne won his first two games on the road isn't too impressive of a feat anyway. His opponents? Case Tech and Wabash.

How's this for more deception:

Devine's first game in 1975 was at a neutral site (Foxboro, Mass.). He won that, as well as his second game, at Purdue. So, just like Weis, he won his first two games away from the Golden Dome. Kudos to the Notre Dame sports information department for getting so much play out of the Rockne reference. Obviously, they know that this stat wouldn't have been repeated as much if it said "Weis is the first to win his first two games away from home since Dan Devine."

So be careful when putting any value in statistics and records. They might be hiding more than they reveal

San Diego St. (+28) at Ohio St.

Ohio St. is coming off a tough loss vs. Texas last Saturday that many viewed as a national championship elimination game. It's hard to imagine them getting up for a non-conference game vs. San Diego St. with Iowa coming to Columbus next week for the Big 10 opener. This is a classic "sandwich game." Besides, the Buckeyes in recent years have a knack for letting lesser teams stick around and cover the spread. Case in point: Two years ago, San Diego St. went into Columbus and nearly pulled an upset as a 31 1/2-point underdog, losing 16-13.

Last year, the Aztecs went to Michigan as 21-point underdogs and lost just 24-21, so coach Tom Craft has a knack for getting his team up for games vs. Big 10 foes. Ohio St. obviously has the talent edge, but San Diego St.'s offense should do enough with quarterback Kevin O'Connell's scrambling ability able to buy some extra time against the OSU pass rush.

The Aztecs' defense isn't anything special, but I'm counting on the Buckeyes still being inconsistent with the platoon system of Troy Smith and Justin Zwick behind center. Ohio St. should win, but I'm counting on it being in the two to three touchdown range.

PLAY: San Diego St. for 1 unit.

Wisconsin (-3) at North Carolina

I'll go with the Big 10 team in this interconference matchup. The Badgers have been one of the surprises this season, even if their wins have come over Bowling Green and Temple.

Now, North Carolina is a step up in class from Temple, but I don't see the Tar Heels being any better than Bowling Green. Wisconsin should be able to run the ball, as it has in its first two games, plus North Carolina allowed 353 passing yards to Georgia Tech last week, so QB John Stocco could find success through the air for the Badgers.

Wisconsin should still be able to stop the Tar Heels' ground attack (only 2.3 yards per carry last week) and contain the passing attack of Matt Baker (280 yards, 3 touchdowns, but also 3 interceptions). But even if it doesn't, any deficiencies should be made up for by the explosive offense.

PLAY: Wisconsin for 1 unit.

Miami-Fla. at Clemson (+7)

Clemson is 2-0 after winning close games against Texas A&M and Maryland by hanging tough in the fourth quarter. Miami has not played since its ugly season-opening 10-7 loss to Florida St. on Labor Day. The Hurricanes certainly weren't flattered when Florida St. had a hard time taking control vs. The Citadel in the first half last week. Miami has gone back to the drawing board, but it's hard to imagine it putting everything together against an inspired, confident home underdog.

When all is said and done, Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (18 for 22 last week for 178 yards and 2 touchdowns) could be the second quarterback taken in the draft behind Matt Leinart, and I think he steps it up in this contest. After all, he did lead the Tigers to a 24-17 straight-up victory at Miami last year as a 16 1/2-point underdog, and it's not a stretch to see him doing the same thing at home this Saturday. The points are a bonus.

PLAY: Clemson for 1 unit.

Last week: 1-2 for a net loss of 1.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 3-2 for a net profit of 0.8 units.