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On the Manny Diaz Situation: The New Old Friend Blues

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Sad that Manny Diaz doesn't have that intoxicating new car smell? Learn to do math and get over it. If he can do in 2015 what he did in 2010, we could be bebopping and scatting all over the place next season.

Diaz uses the air guitar as a sideline signal because he knows his defensive philosophy is most excellent.
GIF credit: Some dude via Tumblr

A prolonged expectation of change can alter your perception of what may in other circumstances be entirely satisfactory. In other words, anticipation of the new may lend itself to reactionary repulsion from the old.

To take one of my tried and true scenarios of immediate regret as an example, let's revisit the metaphysical liquor store I bandied about in a few posts last fall. (I swear I don't just drink and read Kierkegaard all day.) In this abstract idea of a shop, I enter with a discrete goal—buy a new bourbon to try. I've researched a couple on fancy bourbon blogs and message boards for weeks, and I'm stoked to hand over my $40 for a mid-priced gem that only the true believers really appreciate.

They're not in. Hmmm.

That's alright, I've got a few solid back-ups in mind that I've come close to buying before, but just never pulled the trigger on.

On my way over, I pass the stalwart that is solid year in and year out. I glance at it, noting that the price hasn't changed. After a brief pause, I continue on to the two or three bottles I'm looking for.

I read the labels and check the prices as the gears begin to turn. But the same quibbles I had before come up again. So and so said this one was overrated. Wait, did I taste this other one in a cocktail a couple of months back?

I glance back at the retread. Man, that's good stuff at a great price.

The dilemma is repeating itself as it so often has before.

In the end, I break down and go with the known quantity, but immediately question my decision. I wanted to try the old-time, small-batch, colonel's-reserve, cask-strength, double-wheated blah-blah-blah. Instead, I just got more of what I had last time.

*Sigh*

It's not that the familiar brand isn't solid. Of course it is. I know this from experience.

It's just that it's the same.

And it is in this vein of disappointment with the known that I find some of the reaction to Mullen's decision to rehire Manny Diaz. They half-admit that he led a solid defense in 2010—as a rejoinder, many are quick to note how many future NFL players populated the defense's roster that year—but harp on how disappointing it is to not be greeted with an exciting new leader on staff, on how he got canned at Texas, and on how he jilted us four years ago. The team had a chance to make a statement with this hire, a statement that this is the new Mississippi State that will do what it takes to stay in the upper echelon of the college football world, including hiring the biggest, most impressive names in coaching.

We have the money. We have the technology. We can make it better than it was. Better . . . stronger . . . faster.

I get that. I totally do.

But, come on, man. What does any of that actually mean? I don't know a damn thing about hiring a coach in the SEC, and I certainly don't know a damn thing about how to build and manage a staff of highly paid professionals whose job it is to teach teenage physical freaks to run around on a large patch of grass bumping into one another like crazy people with body armor on in a way that abides by a labyrinth of convoluted and largely arbitrary rules that no one seems to understand.

So far be it from me to pretend that my vision of progressive or aggressive coaching hires veers in an informed fashion away from Mullen's.

Instead, it may be best to remember what I do actually know. I know that Manny Diaz coached football at State for a year. I know that during the year in which he coached at State, various groups of robots or monkey geniuses kept records and measurements of the defense's performance. I know that these same genius monkey robot people also kept the very same records before and after Diaz coached State's defense. I know how to read and I know how to use the internet.

So let's take a minute to look at the pudding.

Below is a rudimentary, I-don't-know-how-to-effectively-use-Excel-despite-having-nine-years-of-post-secondary-education chart of Mississippi State's defense from 2008 to 2014. (I included Croom's last year because I thought those benchmarks would be interesting to compare with those achieved under Mullen's coordinators.) Except for the last three rows of new-fangled situational stats, all of the rankings on this chart show State's defense's SEC rank in SEC games only.[1] The yellow highlights represent the defense's best performance under Mullen in a particular category, while the green highlights represent the defense's worst performances in the same span. (Where there are ties, I just went ahead and highlighted multiple years.)

Defense chart 2

That's a hell of a lot of information, but with respect to Mr. Diaz, I think it's pretty telling. Of the fourteen statistical categories I've listed, six of State's best performances in Mullen's tenure came under Diaz, more than any other single year. And while the other three coordinators led a defense with at least one glaring hole—10th and 11th ranked passing and scoring defenses for Torbush, multiple 11th and 12th ranked units for Wilson, and 14th ranked passing defense for Collins—Diaz' lows were comparatively insignificant. Sixth in interceptions is the only one of Mullen's low marks that Diaz was responsible for, and he was actually in a three-way tie with Wilson for that. In fact, the only category in which his defense finished in the bottom half of the SEC was pass defense at eighth, and even then, that is the second-highest we've finished under Mullen in that category. That's really, really good stuff, people.

And as I've written elsewhere, it's important to remember that his defense actually propped up what was in some ways a pedestrian offense on the way to nine wins. Collins' also-solid 2014 defense, on the other hand, had the benefit of playing alongside what turned out to be the most productive offense Mullen has put on the field in Starkville.

So does this mean you should be fist-pumping ecstatic over the Diaz hire? I don't know. Dude bolted after a single year the last time around, and certainly ended his stay in Austin on a less-than-stellar note.

But, man, that 2010 defense was strong.

- Post script -

Thoughts or observations on the defense under Mullen after checking out my not-even-kind-of-fancy chart? Here are some of mine, in no particular order:

  1. I never would've guessed that Chris Wilson's last year at State was statistically worse than Torbush's lone season in 2009. But, dude, it totally was. Hell, in some ways it was worse than Harbison's sole season in Croom's last year. Yikes.
  2. We've given up a lot of yards through the air under Mullen regardless of the coordinator, never having finished better than 7th in the conference in passing defense. Weird.
  3. Outside of Wilson's last year, State's third down defense has been solid under Mullen.
  4. During four of Mullen's six years, State's defenses have finished in the top 33 of the F/+ rankings. (Oddly enough, the offense has finished the season ranked higher than 50th only once. That may be worth taking a look at later.)
  5. Diaz and Collins each oversaw immediate improvements across the board in the first years following their predecessors.
  6. I can't keep my eyes from straying back to Chris Wilson's shame in 2012. Man, that unit had some major issues.


[1] I personally like to use stats from conference games only when comparing different teams from different years. It removes some of the stat-padding that comes from FCS or directional opponents, and also lets me avoid comparing the strength of teams' non-conference opponents. State plays the same teams from the SEC West every year, so I figure using only in-conference stats lets me come somewhat close to comparing apples to apples.