Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Few College Football Thoughts

Perhaps this'll become a weekly event. Obligation is sometimes the only thing that gets me writing...

1. Over the next few weeks (if not already, but I'd prefer to wait until the conference season starts for you to really notice it) , when you read national columnists, watch college football TV shows, read blogs, or listen to radio stations talk about college football, you are probably going to hear someone using the phrase "Conference X is really down this year". Set aside the concept that a conference, whose members primarily all play one another and therefore cancel one another out, can be "up or down", and further set aside that comparing conferences can be anything more than a fool's errand. The thing I want you to pay attention to is this: when a writer/pundit/talking head says that a conference is "down", are they really just saying "my predictions as to who would be good in conference X were wrong"? Is the Big Ten really "down" this year or is Michigan just worse than some people thought? More than half the conference is unbeaten right now. If Mighigan State and Purdue (or, who knows, even Indiana) end up winning a bunch of games, the conference might be much deeper than in previous years. But when the predicted frontrunner falters a few times, some want to tar the entire conference. This was the case last year in the ACC. Miami and Florida State weren't as good as many people thought. Wake Forest and Georgia Tech were better than people thought.

The point is that when preseason predictions fall apart, pundit-types can either admit they were way off, or turn to a different narrative. If the results don't fit your preconceived notions, you can admit that you don't know what you're talking about, or you can pivot and put the blame (potentially unfairly) on something else.

Keep an eye out for it.

2. This brings me to one of my Grand Unifying Theories on college football punditry. In simple terms, I don't like the idea of polls determining titles because polls are subject to opinions. And it has been my experience that one of the most difficult things in the world is for a person to admit that their opinion is wrong. It takes overwhelming facts to change someone's mind.

This is why it took 9 weeks for Wake Forest to get ranked last year in the Coaches' Poll, while an Oregon team on its way to 7-6 remained ranked in the same poll.

Teams that were ranked high in the preseason (based on nothing but projection) are given the benefit of every doubt - until overwhelming evidence makes it impossible for such a team to remain ranked. Teams that were not expected to play well in the preseason (based on nothing but projection) are held to a significantly higher standard - they have to really prove to pundits that they merit ranking, a hardship many other programs are not faced with.

I think about this hypothetical. Kentucky and Florida. They play almost exactly the same schedule. Kentucky plays Auburn, Miss State and LSU from the SEC West, while Florida plays Arkansas, Mississippi and LSU. Both play one good OOC opponent (FSU for Florida, Louisville for Kentucky (both at home). Both play three other weak OOC opponents (EKU, Kent State, FAU for Kentucky; WKU, Troy, FAU for Florida). It's oddly the same. Florida started the season ranked #3 in the coaches' poll. Kentucky received but a single vote (fewer than Memphis, Houston and 43 other teams). Here's the question: since Kentucky and Florida play almost the exact same schedule in terms of difficulty, and the only difference between the two is how they are perceived in preseason, why is it likely that the road to a top ranking is significantly more difficult for Kentucky than for Florida? If both teams were to roll through their schedules undefeated going into their matchup in late October, how many spots higher would Florida be ranked? And if Kentucky were to win that game, would Kentucky merely take Florida's spot, or would any interceding teams remain ahead of the Wildcats?

Of course, this is a hypothetical, and a long way off. But it's not that crazy. In fact, it almost happened last year. The AP rankings last year in Week Ten listed Louisville at #3, behind Ohio State and Michigan, who would be playing later in the year. Rutgers was unbeaten and ranked 15th. Louisville had played a more difficult schedule to that point (though it woud tighten significantly after the game between the two of them). After Rutgers defeated Louisville, and the two had played a very similar schedule, did unbeaten Rutgers assume Louisville's slot in third? Nope. Rutgers jumped to 7th, behind four teams with a loss (and the only unbeaten teams ahead of them were Ohio State and Michigan). There's a logical disconnect. If people thought an unbeaten Louisville team was good enough to be #3, why wouldn't they also think an unbeaten Rutgers team that had just beaten them was good enough? The only difference between the two was that Rutgers began the season unranked, while Louisville began at #13.

3. Last week, the only scores that made me very surprised were Utah-UCLA and Iowa State-Iowa.

4. Something's Got To Give! Unbeaten matchups this week:

  • Oklahoma at Tulsa (Friday Night Lights - could be a fun offensive game)
  • South Carolina at LSU.
  • 27 other unbeaten teams can remain so.
5. Please God Something Give! Winless matchups this week:
  • San Jose State at Utah State
6. Odd Road Games. Last week's list featured UCF scaring Texas for three quarters and FAU beating Minnesota.

  • Iowa State at Toledo: Toledo's no good, but Iowa State could suffer a letdown).
  • Baylor at Buffalo: Other than a couple of home games against UConn, Syracuse and Rutgers, this is the first home game for Buffalo against a BCS-conference team since November 29, 1900 when Penn State visited.
  • Northern Illinois at Idaho: First OOC home game against a 1-A opponent since 2003.
  • Wyoming at Ohio: First ever meeting of these teams.
7. Big-Impact Games. To describe better this category, these are games which have an impact on conference titles, and later in the year I'll mention teams trying to get bowl-eligible. Trying to whittle this down, so as not to list all the Big Ten conference openers. These are games that might not get the most attention, but could have big ramifications.
  • Georgia Tech at Virginia: a loss by the Jackets puts them three games behind Virginia in the Coastal, and Virginia is in the driver's seat (seriously!).
  • Air Force at BYU: With a win by the Falcons, they'll have already beaten the top three teams in the conference by preseason predictions.
  • Memphis at UCF: If anyone is going to challenge Southern Miss in CUSA-East, it'll be the winner of this game.
  • Florida Atlantic at North Texas: Just a couple of years ago, North Texas dominated this conference. Now, FAU there are a few teams that are almost respectable (FAU, Troy, Arkansas State). FAU can move closer to New Orleans (the first bowl there this year) with a road win.
  • Washington at UCLA: who can rebound the best and perhaps start a campaign against USC?
8. Revenge Games. Teams where a team was upset last year, or the favored team this year lost last year, or a lot was riding on last year's game for the losing team.
  • Arizona at Cal. The loss to Arizona last year ended up costing Cal the Rose Bowl and an outright Pac-10 title.
  • Maryland at Wake Forest. Last year's game gave Wake the Atlantic Division title, and Maryland (seriously) would've gone to Jacksonville and potentially the BCS had they won.
  • Iowa State at Toledo. Maybe a reach, but had Toledo last year won in OT, they would've been bowl-eligible.
  • UConn at Pitt. Last year's late loss to the Huskies cost Pitt a bowl bid.
  • Michigan State at Notre Dame. This collapse last year caused a tailspin and brought a new coach to East Lansing.
  • Penn State at Michigan. Remember curious timekeeping the last time the Nittany Lions went to Ann Arbor?


peacedog said...

1. Excellent points. I would comment that sometimes people can;t change course with their opinions and it's not even a deliberate thing on their part. They don't know any better.

Nice feature, if it becomes a feature.

Chg said...

To a point, I agree with #1. However, if Minnesota (highly unlikely) and Michigan (no idea)run rampant through the Big Ten, isn't it fair to suggest that the conference is not that good?