Tuesday, December 13, 2005

First, an attempt to remain relevant

Before I dive headfirst into trying to catch up with all the stuff I've been meaning to post on for the last week or so, I'll tackle something that came up just today.

Michael at Braves and Birds directs us to an ESPN Sportscenter/SportsNation event where the hopeless bastards in Bristol are asking us to help them determine the best college football team over the last 50 years, and then match them up head to head with this year's USC team.

First, a digression... Whenever ESPN starts one of these "____of all time" online discussions, it just reminds me of this argument I used to have in high school about (of all things) student government. See, we had this girl in our class who was pretty much Tracy Flick. She carried a walkie talkie at school functions so she'd be closer to the administration, and she was kind of a suckup to power at the school (and from what I hear she's an RNC lobbyist now...). Anyway, she used to get all fired up about committees and organizing school events, while (though yes, I was an officer in the SGA) I would kind of question the reasons behind doing all these things. One time she was all concerned (to the point of really freaking out) about making sure we had enough freshman representation on a committee that was scheduling the various spirit days - these were the individual days of the week of the Homecoming Game and each day would have a "theme", like Disco Day or hat day or whatever bullshit day, all leading up to School Spirit Day on the day of the game. I just remember thinking, "Seriously, who gives a good fuck whether there are 4 or 5 freshmen on the committee to decide what gay theme we're going to have on the Tuesday of spirit week." And so, I voiced said opinion to our Tracy Flick. She just couldn't understand what I was talking about, so I tried to explain in greater detail. My point was that all the effort the SGA was putting into these events was self-created. If the SGA didn't put any effort into planning these stupid spirit days, nobody would be clamoring for them. Nobody would care at all, would miss them. So the point I was trying to make was that we didn't need to stress ourselves out about something like this. The stress she was feeling was self created.

And that's sort of how I feel about efforts like ESPN's. Nobody is gathering around the water cooler wondering about this. The debate, if any, is the result of ESPN themselves. So basically, I'm not going to get all that fired up about this kind of self-created controversy.

But in any event, the way they're doing it is screwy anyway.

First, the online poll only deals with USC. This assumes USC is better than unbeaten Texas this year. Why only USC is getting this hype is a bit odd to me. Texas has the same record, playing a more difficult (under SOS ratings) schedule, has a better ranked defense and has a better signature victory than USC. I'm not sure who I would pick to win between the two, but I know that at least both are worth mentioning. But of course, that wouldn't fit with the overhyping of the Trojans. (and FTR, I'm not saying USC doesn't deserve hype. They do. The way everything has to be the "greatest ever" on ESPN is the annoyance. USC is merely the vehicle through which the hype travels in this instance.)

Second, the way that this all seems to be working. The poll determines who the fans think are the best 11 teams of all time (from the selected pool, and more on that in a second), and then Sportscenter will match up each one against USC. Just in my own mind, I have to guess that this will pan out with the Trojans winning most, if not all of the games up until the very end. If USC were to start losing to teams ranked around 9th all time, that wouldn't make for continuous hyping of the greatness of the #1 team. Also, why would folks keep turning in? To see how much worse USC would lose the next night? Nope, it's a sham already.

Third, the pool of possible teams. It appears ESPN has selected our options to be limited to teams that were undefeated and untied and won a national title. Flaw #1: Sometimes great teams don't go undefeated. What if there are two transcendent teams playing in the same year, and they tie, like Michigan State and Notre Dame in 1966? Don't count. Both those teams could be better than an undefeated team in, say 1984. Florida in 1996 is another team I'd say could be at least as good as several teams that actually went undefeated, simply because of who they played. Flaw #2: the "National Title" rule. Back in the day the "National Title" was awarded before the bowls were played. Using just that same year as above, 1966, Alabama went undefeated but wasn't awarded a national title, because it ranked behind MSU and ND. Or how about undefeated 13-0, 4 first round NFL draft picks, SEC champions Auburn Tigers from 2004?

Fourth, the teams they selected in the top 10, as opposed to the other teams battling it out for #11. Michael hinted at a Big 10 bias. Perhaps there's something to it. I think it has more to do with just picking the best teams out of the traditional college football programs. But even still, there is a surprising lack of respect given to the SEC.

And looking at each team, I'm not sure there's a clear separation between the top 10 and any of the other teams (let alone teams not considered). Let's look at a few questionable choices (which just so happen to be the Big 10 teams):

1994 Penn State: This team did not win the national title. AP picked Nebraska. UPI picked Nebraska. USA Today/CNN: Nebraska. Football Writers Association of America: Nebraska. The Sporting News: Nebraska. Alderson: Nebraska. Kirlin: Nebraska. Football News: Nebraska. Harry Frye: Nebraska. James Whalen: Nebraska. NY Post: Nebraska. Sparks: Nebraska. Washington TD Club: Nebraska. Billingsley: Nebraska. Clyde Berryman: Nebraska. David Wilson: Nebraska. DKC: Nebraska. James Howell: Nebraska. Jeff Self: Nebraska. And a bunch more that don't really matter, because the two accepted polls both picked Nebraska. Look, if you've read this site at all, you know that I'm no fan of polls, and I think that Penn State should claim a title for this year, since nobody bested them on the field. However, that doesn't mean ESPN should set up rules and then abandon them. They said the team had to win a national title. If this Penn State team is on the list, where's Auburn 2004? Also, since ESPN was only choosing one team per school, and Nebraska 1995 is on the list, doesn't that presume that Nebraska 1995 is better than Nebraska 1994? And, ergo, that Nebraska 1995 has to be better than the Penn State team that was ranked behind the weaker 1994 team in all the polls that matter? So if the results of the poll show Penn State ahead of Nebraska, just know that it isn't logically sound.

1997 Michigan: OK, I do think this was a really good team. The defense was incredible. I can see this team on the list. However, I do have one small qualm with them. Michigan that year did not play a single team from the Southeast. No FSU. No Tennessee. No Georgia. No Florida. Nobody. While I admit that speed=south is not always entirely accurate, if one looks at the Wolverines' schedule, one has to wonder how dominant the defense would've been against Peyton Manning and Jamal Lewis. Or Hines Ward and Robert Edwards. I think there's an excellent chance that UM would still have won and in that case their claim to one of the best all time teams would've been that much stronger. But without beating a team from that part of the country, I pause slightly. And I'd probably do the same going the other way, too. The 1999 FSU team didn't play anyone with an enormous offensive and defensive line and a punishing defense like the stereotypical midwestern teams. Gives me a slight pause as well.

2002 Ohio State: This is the one that Michael took the most issue with, and I echo his sentiments, especially on how this isn't even Ohio State's best team. It is indeed strange how Ohio State's escapes are treated as proof that they were a team of destiny, while 1998 Tennessee's close wins (and while significantly fewer) are a sign of weakness (and they use the same language with 1980 Georgia and the ridiculous BYU team).

Fifth, and finally: the qualities by which we are to rank the teams. The blurbs on the side make little suggestions on the standards. Key players, key wins, scoring offense and defense, scoring margins, Heisman trophy winners, repeat champions. Should we consider how good particular players turned out to be in the NFL, since it mentions draft picks? Are we looking at individual accomplishments or just the team? Should we consider the relative schedules played, and is there a way to know this? Should we compare eras? The 1955 Oklahoma team wasn't integrated. The 1969 Texas team had no black players (though there were some on the team who didn't earn letters). And not to get DeBerry on y'all, but if the pool of available players is smaller, isn't it likely that the teams might not be quite as good? In any event, should we count that against those teams or cut them slack because of the era? No guidance is given.

Thankfully, this poll and subsequent matchups with USC are meaningless. But it's yet another example of how ESPN creates controversies to hype its own products. Like last week's kiddie-pool-deep study on cheating in sports by Jeremy Schaap, just perfectly timed to coincide with the premier of Codebreakers. Just another reason to pay less attention to the worldwide leader. Someday Fox will actually put some effort into FSN or CBS will start a cable sports network (maybe CSTV) and ESPN will actually have some competition.

UPDATE: Burnt Orange Nation, to whom I should direct you much much much more frequently, has the Texas angle on this and more. And that Fox Sports link on how USC might beat the Houston Texans... I mocked Scoop Jackson when he suggested the same. Let me put this in very clear terms: anyone who suggests that ANY college team can beat ANY professional team in a real game should never be paid one red cent for his or her writing. Any editor who doesn't spike that column should be removed from his or her position. This idea for a column is utterly utterly utterly moronic and insults the intelligence of readers. Period.