Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Perspective with Some Foresight

Michigan-Ohio State should be an incredible game today. I have no ability to comprehend the mixed emotions Wolverine fans must be feeling today. It could be surreal, but I have a feeling that once the opening kick happens, fans of both teams will put aside whatever emotions they might have and focus just on the game.

A lot of national writers have been writing all week about the possibility of a rematch of these two teams. As to whether that should or shouldn't happen, I'll leave it to others to opine. I prefer to address the process, and whether the current situation is more or less likely to produce a rematch.

Here's the thing: I think the current numbers, especially the computer numbers, strongly suggest that a rematch will be likely, and it doesn't really matter who wins. Michigan currently holds a very strong position in the computer polls. A loss, on the road (which many computer rankings consider), will probably not drop Michigan much. On the other hand, Ohio State may, as strange as it may seem, improve in the computer rankings, even with a loss. Ohio State sits behind Rutgers, but a very strong opponent getting added to the Buckeyes' schedule (while Rutgers plays a more pedestrian Cincinnati), may lead to a closer gap between the two. I do not think it is too far beyond the realm of possibility to think that in the computer rankings released tomorrow, Michigan and Ohio State could be 1 and 2, regardless of the outcome of today's game.

If that happens, then the question will be in the human polls - how far down will the loser drop? If the result is extremely close, I wouldn't expect the loser to drop very far. And if USC loses to Cal (a very possible result), the likelihood of the loser of UM-OSU staying in the #2 spot is pretty good. Michigan is over 240 points ahead of Florida in the Harris Poll, and 140 points ahead in the denser scaled Coaches' Poll. Even if Michigan were to lose and drop behind USC and/or Florida, the gap in the polls might not be significant enough to make up for Michigan's potential lead in the computer polls. Now, if USC beats Cal, expect USC's computer ranking to improve. But Florida and Notre Dame's computer rankings could actually drop with wins over weak opponents today. As for a loss by Ohio State, their lead in the Harris and Coaches' Polls makes it even more likely that they'd remain in the top 2 in the next released rankings.

Now, the reason why I think this is all interesting is because I think Sunday's released BCS rankings could cause more chaos than any other BCS controversy.

Here's why: if Michigan and Ohio State sit at 1 and 2 in the rankings on Sunday, and since both teams play no more games, we all will be able to watch exactly how the BCS rankings can be manipulated by humans. And considering that there is greater transparency in the human polls than ever before, we'll be able to see exactly who is doing the manipulating.

All of the other teams potentially involved in the BCS National Championship Game hunt have at least a few more games remaining. Ohio State and Michigan do not.

If writers, pundits, whoever else take note of Sunday's rankings and begin voicing concerns about a rematch in Glendale, it will be very interesting to see what effect that has on subsequent BCS standings. Do voters opposed to a rematch drop the loser of the UM-OSU game further in subsequent weeks, even though they aren't playing and simply for the purpose of creating a specific matchup in Glendale? We'll be able to watch it happen. Of course, individual voters could argue that the remaining games simply showed how they were impressed by other teams. Of course, that argument could simply conceal personal motivations.

So ask yourself... if Florida sits in third place on Sunday, do coaches in the SEC that happen to vote in the Coaches' Poll drop the loser of UM-OSU further in their specific poll? If they can help engineer a spot for Florida in the title game, that may mean a second at-large BCS team from the SEC, since the Sugar Bowl would have an early pick. That also means millions more to be divided among conference teams, and possibly a full complement of SEC teams in bowls (as potential bowls go right now, the SEC may have one team left out and searcing for an open slot). And consider, coaches do not operate in a vaccuum. The SEC coaches with a personal incentive to vote a particular way have worked with and dealt with coaches all over. An SEC coach makes a call to a former assistant who now coaches in the ACC and asks for a favor, "say, how about voting Michigan a spot or two lower? It'll really help us out down here, and I'll owe you one." Unethical? Probably. Wrong? Definitely. Possible? Absolutely.

So if the loser of UM-OSU doesn't drop below No. 2 in the BCS standings released tomorrow, be ready for chaos. If that team drops in subsequent weeks, without playing, we'll all be watching very closely. And personally, I kind of like that. Because it'll display in full view of everyone how these rankings can be manipulated and directy affected by individuals who have personal biases and incentives. And that will be an enormous story, especially if the drop is at the expense of one of the big market, big coverage teams (like Ohio State or Michigan). If you thought Auburn fans were disgruntled a few years ago, just wait until Ohio State or Michigan fans react to getting dropped without playing, and as the result of human polls directly affecting the BCS National Championship Game. It'll be a Shit Cyclone.