The first and most important is that it requires a serious splitting of hairs to pick between the teams. Both teams have one loss against fairly tough schedules. Florida has more quality wins, as they went 5-1 against Sagarin's top 30, whereas Michigan was 3-1, so it's fair to say that Florida played a slightly tougher schedule, although for a national title contender, there are tough games and then there's playing the #1 team on the road, which Michigan did and Florida didn't. On the other hand, Florida didn't blow anyone out all season. Compare the team's performances in their biggest games. Michigan beat Notre Dame by 26 on the road and Wisconsin by 17 at home before losing on the road to the wire-to-wire #1 by three points, the one result that can legitimately justify a rematch. Florida lost to an Auburn team that twice got blown out at home, benefitted from LSU's "shoot yourself in the foot, the Les Miles Way!" exhibition, and they eked past Tennessee, Georgia, Florida State, Vandy, and South Carolina. In fact, they were outgained by both South Carolina and Vandy. In contrast, Michigan beat Vandy by 20 and outgained them by 210 yards. It's Michigan's dominance in its wins that's the basis of Vegas having the Wolverines as a six-point favorite on a neutral field, per Chris Fowler. In any event, it's legitimate to say that Florida is #2 because of a better resume and it's equally legitimate to say that Michigan is #2 because they have looked like a better team this year.
That said, I doubt that the coaches or the voters in the Harris poll will make their decision based on the resume and/or having seen the two teams in question on a number of occasions. Instead, they are going to make decisions based on a series of cop-out, invented rules that will allow them to avoid the heavy lifting of deciding which team is more deserving. The voters will use the following canards:
Michigan didn't win its conference - this is not a BCS rule. In fact, it was suggested as a rule following the 2001 and 2003 seasons and on both occasions, the BCS declined to create a requirement that a title game participant win its own conference. The BCS solely exists to determine who the two best teams are in the country so they can play in the title game, full stop. If the two best teams are in the same conference, then so be it. You think that SEC fans wouldn't clamor for an all-SEC title game if it was clear that, say, Florida and Tennessee were the two best teams in the country and they played a three-point game earlier in the year?
Michigan got its shot at Ohio State - yes, and they lost by three on the road, which is essentially a draw since homefield is worth at least three points. Florida had their shot to end the debate, but they lost to Auburn. The "Michigan got its shot" argument penalizes Michigan for having played the best team in the country and it rewards Florida for having lost to a good, but not great Auburn team that finished 10-2 instead of 12-0. If Auburn was #1, then this argument would penalize Florida because they "already got their shot."
Rematches are bad - G-d must really have a sense of humor to put Florida fans in the position of making this argument.
I'd like to see Florida-Ohio State more than Michigan-Ohio State - You're not Roone Arledge, so just pick the two best teams, m'kay?
[Update: here is Terry Bowden, who is far more educated than the typical voter in the coaches' poll or Harris poll and who has certainly seen the two teams more than the average coach, illustrating this flawed reasoning: Michigan is a better team, but Florida "deserves" to play for the title. If a Rhodes Scholar is making a decision this way...?]
What I think is really going on is a classic illustration of recency. Florida played last and played well and that's all the voters remember. After the Michigan-Ohio State game, a number of writers poured forward to say that they had not been in favor of a rematch before, but after seeing Michigan and Ohio State stand toe-to-toe and trade blows, they had changed their minds. Now, Michigan has been out of sight and out of mind for the past two weeks and Florida has beaten Arkansas to win the SEC, so they're fresh in the voters' minds and voters, especially glorified gym coaches like the voters in the coaches and Harris polls, will always overrate the importance of the last piece of evidence.
Michigan fans are very familiar with this phenomenon, as they watched dozens of coaches change their mind and vote Nebraska #1 at the end of the '97 season in the aftermath of the Huskers' demolition of Tennessee. They forgot the fact that Nebraska had cheated to beat Missouri in overtime, or the fact that they beat 5-6 Colorado by three points, the same Colorado team that Michigan destroyed 27-3 at the start of the season, and they made their decision by massively overrating the importance of the Orange Bowl, especially in light of the facts that: (1) Peyton Manning had an injured knee; and (2) Tennessee had nothing to play for after Michigan had won the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten sets itself up to be victims of the recency phenomenon by ending its season the week before Thanksgiving, while the other conferences, whoring themselves for TV dollars and knowing the short memories of voters, extend their seasons by two weeks thereafter. A Big Ten fan likely views this as a nice nod to tradition, ending the season when it has always ended and not letting TV and unseemly political motivations rule their schedules. A fan of the SEC probably views this as an unrealistic, hidebound refusal to change with the times. (Strangely enough, I thought that Southerners were big supporters of tradition.) I don't think it's a coincidence that Big Ten teams have lost every close decision in which they've been involved in the past 15 years:
1994 - Penn State goes unbeaten and fails to win either poll.
1997 - Michigan becomes the first team ever to go into the bowls at #1 in a poll, win its bowl game, and then finish #2 in that poll. (In my heart of hearts, I think the right resolution would have been for split titles in '94 and '97, but it was certainly galling for Nebraska to prevail using a "we went unbeaten in a major conference; we have to be rewarded!" argument that failed for Penn State three years earlier.)
1998 - Ohio State finishes 10-1, but loses out to 10-1 Florida State for a spot opposite Tennessee in the title game. Ohio State was obviously a better team, given that they weren't starting Marcus Outzen under center, but Florida State beat Florida at the end of the year and that's what voters remembered.
If someone can recall the last time a Big Ten team won a close vote to place a team in the national title game or to win the national title, I'd appreciate the reminder.
Michigan, as a representative of the Big Ten, is further traditionalist in its refusal to campaign for votes. Lloyd Carr got the platform to do so on SportsCenter last night and elected not to set forth the arguments in favor of Michigan getting the nod for the rematch. Personally, I liked that move because it made him seem classy in comparison to Urban Meyer's daily hyperventilating about how the whole system should be blown up if Florida doesn't make the title game. I started the year comparing Lloyd to George McClellan because of his refusal to go for the throat even with total superiority in men and material, but I'm going to end it by comparing Lloyd to Abraham Lincoln because Lincoln did not campaign for the presidency in 1860, but instead, he stayed in Springfield and wrote letters while Stephen Douglas campaigned relentlessly against him. Lloyd's refusal to whore himself or his program makes me proud of him. (I'm again sounding like a Lost Cause Southern historian. Lloyd is going to be Robert E. Lee in a few seconds.)
While I'm on the subject of politicking, Gary Danielson's performance last night was an absolute disgrace. I understand that he's reputedly a human being who is paid to have opinions, but I've rarely seen an announcer turn the fourth quarter of a football game into a 30-minute advertisement for one school. The fact that Danielson (a) was not recruited by Michigan (and thus went to Purdue) and (b) is working for the one network that exclusively covers the SEC surely had nothing to do with his open rooting for Florida and his subjective, idiotic comparison of the two teams' schedules. Regardless of the result of the vote this afternoon, Danielson is going to go down in Michigan lore along with Sean McDonough, who performed a similar role in 1997 during CBS's broadcast of the Nebraska-Tennessee Orange Bowl to facilitate the Huskers picking up part of the national title.
I'm going to steal from Jonathan Chait's post on The Victors Board for illustation:
If you don't think the CBS campaign last night was a huge factor, you live in a different world than I do.
People are enormously suggestible. Every voter sat for an hour and a half watching a network drill an agenda into them, priming them with context and repeating propaganda points over and over again.
I don't have any psychology research in front of me, but there is a library full of studies showing that sort of thing has unbelievably powerful effects on people's thinking.
My wife, a psychologist, agrees with this description, so there! Personally, it reminded me of something that Professor Tom Collier said in 20th Century American Wars during my sophomore year at Michigan when we were discussing Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs: it all depends on the question being asked. (This is the second time today that I've invoked the decision to drop the bombs; the first was this morning when I told Orson that LSU's receivers versus Notre Dame's corners would be an "atrocity-producing situation," which is a term I lifted from Hiroshima in America.)
CBS and Danielson framed the debate by focusing on the points that favor Florida - more good teams on their schedule - and ignoring the points that favored Michigan, such as the critical "not outgained by Vanderbilt" category. Thus, you ended up with voters hearing the Florida talking points drummed into their heads for the final hours before casting their ballots. The voters who stayed up for ESPN2's College Football Final then had those points repeated by Lou Holtz and Mark May, so they ended up going to bed with the impression that there was consensus that Florida was #2. Groupthink, anyone? You think these people wouldn't have sung along with "Throw Lloyd Carr down the Well" if May and Holtz were singing it? (In the realm of points against Florida's claim to #2, May and Holtz's support for the proposition ranks right up there. Herbstreit and Fowler, the two ESPN studio analysts with a shred of intellectual ability, both seemed to favor Michigan, but weren't nearly as explicit about it as the pro-Florida crowd was.)
Of course, all of this would be irrelevant if we had a plus-one system. The whole unseemly process of announcers and coaches blathering on like Carville and Novak would be less important if we didn't have a system that required impossible tasks such as differentiating between two one-loss teams with very similar credentials. With a plus-one system, we would have Ohio State vs. LSU, Michigan vs. Florida, and the debate would be a far less important one over who is #4, rather than who is #2. In the end, Florida is going to get the nod over Michigan because of the short memory of simple-minded voters, which seems a wee bit inferior to the two teams meeting in Pasadena or New Orleans to settle the matter like men.