Thursday, February 08, 2007

Tony Blair Woke up this Morning and Realized that Great Britain No Longer has an Empire

Based on my limited sample of Michigan fans and some casual persual of Signing Day articles, there seems to be a customary rending of garments going on among Midwestern college football fans. The combination of Notre Dame, Michigan, and Ohio State's pummelings in the bowl games, along with a bumper recruiting crop for the SEC, USC, and Texas and average recruiting classes in the Upper Midwest (SEC teams held seven of the top ten spots in Rivals' Rankings, while USC and Texas were in the top five) have led to the conclusion that the South and West are leaving the Midwest behind. I don't think that's right, but only because the verb is present tense instead of past tense. College football dominance shifted South once air conditioning and desegregation took effect and jobs migrated south.

There are a lot of ways to measure that conclusion, but the easiest way would probably be with national championships. In the past 20 years, Michigan, Ohio State, and Notre Dame, the three marquee programs in the Midwest, each have one national title. In that same period, no team from the Northeast has won a national title. Moreover, Michigan won its title without playing anyone from the South and Notre Dame and Ohio State both benefited from bad calls against Miami. ND beat Miami in '88 in part because of a dreadful fumble call against Miami at the one-yard line; Ohio State had the dodgy interference call in overtime, although OSU was also screwed at the end of regulation on a pass that would have ended the game, so I'm more sympathetic to them. Just about any national champion can be marginalized by pointing to luck factors, but the point is that Notre Dame and Ohio State had no margin for error in their games against Miami. The Midwest hasn't produced a truly dominant champion in recent memory. '88 Notre Dame, '97 Michigan, and '02 Ohio State aren't going to be part of the "what was the best team in the past 20 years?" conversation.

In contrast to the three national titles for the Midwest and Northeast in the past 20 years, here are the totals for the South, West, and Plains:

South: 13

Miami - four
Florida State - two
Florida - two
Alabama - one
LSU - one
Georgia Tech - one
Tennessee - one
Texas - one

West: three

USC - two
Washington - one

Great Plains: five

Nebraska - three
Colorado - one
Oklahoma - one

There is inevitably some imprecision involved in making determinations as to what region a given program falls. One argument could be that Nebraska is really in the Midwest and that doubles the region's totals. However, even if that's true, Nebraska illustrates the point that Southern teams typically have significantly more talent than teams from the Midwest and therefore, that teams with less talent can only win with an unconventional style. Nebraska was one of the few teams that truly scared SEC fans, as they had an impeccable record against the SEC during their option era. Nebraska realized long ago that they couldn't compete with other programs on a talent-for-talent basis, so they had an innovative option offense to compensate. (They forgot this when they hired Bill Callahan, which is why they'll never be anything more than a decent program from now on.) Michigan and Ohio State might take heed of that example. They'll always have more talent than the Iowas and Wisconsins of the world and if they're satisfied with winning the conference and losing their bowl games, that's cool. To beat USC or Florida (or whatever team from the SEC vanquishes Florida), they can't be conventional. I am at a loss in terms of figuring out how they should be unconventional. Ohio State's shotgun offense seems all racy (especially to Michigan fans), but it's not unconventional in the modern college football world. And Michigan and Notre Dame's pro style offenses are certainly not unconventional in any respects.

Even if you drop the eight national titles from the three Florida programs out and exclude Texas from the South, the South still beats the Midwest in national titles in the past 20 years. The overall conclusion, to me at least, is that Michigan and Notre Dame fans overrate the value of their schools' profile and tradition. (I exempt Ohio State from that discussion because Ohio State, unlike Michigan and Notre Dame, can simply recruit their state and have a very good team. It won't be as good as Florida or USC because Ohioans probably overrate their high school football talent as compared to that in Florida and California, but it will be very good.) TV appearances and cool fight songs are nice factors when trying to pull in recruits and there's no doubt that those are the reasons why Ryan Mallett and Donovan Warren are coming to Ann Arbor and Jimmy Clausen and Armando Allen are headed to South Bend. However, those guys are the exception, not the rule. The most important factor in recruiting is proximity to talent and teams in the Midwest and Northeast face a significant disadvantage in that respect.

I'd also draw a distinction between the South and the West at this stage. Michigan fans throw up their hands and say "we can't compete with Florida's and USC's talent" and then that leads to "there's more talent in the South and West," but that's not accurate. Florida did pull in an epic recruiting class, but their regional rivals also did well. Thus, it's unfair to expect Florida to replicate USC's dominance in the Pac Ten. Florida will have more talent than the teams that it plays, but the margin won't be huge, so the Auburns, Tennessees, LSUs, South Carolinas, and Georgias of the world will jump up and bite them from time to time. (And that leaves out Florida State and Miami, which could have renaissances at some point.)

In contrast to the South, I'd attribute USC's success, in no small part, to the fact that they have no significant regional rival and have been able to pick and choose the best talent out West. The talent pool in the West isn't on the same level as that of the South, but when one program gets all of the talent in any region, that team will be tough to compete with. Want evidence? How about this gem from Steve Megarjee's Signing Day wrap:

The addition of [Joe] McKnight gives USC six five-star prospects this season and an astounding 23 five-star signees over the last four years. The rest of the Pac-10 schools have combined to sign only six five-star prospects (Oregon wide receiver Cameron Colvin, Arizona defensive end Louis Holmes, California wide receiver DeSean Jackson, UCLA quarterback Ben Olson, Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart and Washington quarterback Matthew Tuiasosopo) during that same time frame.

Pac Ten programs not named USC took two of the top ten players in California this year. They took one of the top ten in 2006. They took three of the top ten in 2005. They took four of the top ten in 2004. Thus, in a four-year period, USC has signed 25 of the players on the California top ten list and the rest of the conference has signed ten. The argument that SEC fans should be making to belittle USC's success is not that USC would go 8-3 in the SEC, a totally unsupportable claim given the ridiculous amounts of talent that USC deploys. Instead, the argument should be that USC benefits from the fact that no one else on the West Coast can recruit worth a damn. Anyway, to get back to my original point, it's not correct to say that college football is currently ruled by the South and West. Rather, the statement should be that college football is ruled by the South and USC.


scott said...

As a Michigan fan, I disagree somewhat. Michigan has consistently had, in the not too distant past, recruiting classes that have cracked the Top 5. This year they were Top-15 material, not great but still very good. You say Mallett and Warren are exceptions, but I disagree. Michigan has had great success pulling 5-star types out of Ohio, PA, CA, Texas, and other states. They're also adept and finding diamonds-in-the-rough, like in the case of Mike Hart.

Michigan's problem isn't talent, it's that they're usually out-thought. You touched on it in your post -- they run a very vanilla pro-style offense and don't deviate from that, so the other team ALWAYS knows what coming. That's great against most of the Big Ten, but when the talent level evens out Michigan never makes adjustments to carry it over the top.

The other thing worth noting is that every program on your list has also had very down years within the last 20. Like, losing-season, miss-out-on-a-bowl-game-type down years. Michigan's worst season was 7-5 two years ago. You tend to think these things are cyclical so Michigan's staying power can't really be argued with.

Anonymous said...

Why does one never see this kind of meta-analysis from "real" journalists? I really think it has to do with journalism schools and their emphasis on reportage over actual critical thought.

Chg said...

It could also have to do with the quality of students that apply to journalism schools, particularly those who go on to become sports journalists. Most of them did not have neurosurgery as a fallback plan.

Peter said...

Wait, what?

Are you, Michael, supporting some sort of "the poor kids in the recruiting game can only win with funky offensive innovation"? Because it certainly reads that way in the middle there.

And sounds disturbingly HP/CFR-ish. Am I wrong?

Ed said...

Good analysis - I have to disagree with your points about Notre Dame though.

Notre Dame from 1988-1993 went a combined 10-1 against USC, Miami, Florida, and Florida State (the record is 14-2-1 if you include Michigan in there, btw). That stat is skewed somewhat by the 6-0 record against USC, a team that was not nearly as dominant as the Florida teams during that period (Top Ten material only in 88-90, though if they had beaten ND in 88, they would have won the NC - I digress). Nonetheless, that still leaves a 4-1 record against the state of Florida, including convincing wins against Miami in 90, Florida '91, and against FSU in 1993.

Now, 4-1, 10-1, and 14-2-1 respectively don't happen unless ND during that period had an incredible amount of talent. And they did - on par with Miami and no one else, in my opinion. The 92 team had, I believe 6 or 7 first round draft picks, and that was the 4th best Irish team of that time-frame. The 88 team may have won the title a bit freakishly, but the 89 and 93 teams also lost their chances at the title freakishly as well (Miami's 3rd and 43 conversion in 1989; BC in 93 with a last-minute drop of an easy interception).

The trouble is from 1994-on it's been a wasteland for ND, and that's where your analysis hits the mark - at least when it comes to the Fighting Irish.

Jerry Hinnen said...

I'm biased as hell, but a list of national champions with an eye toward "Which conferences have produced truly great teams?" should probably at least mention 2004 Auburn, the only team to have run the SEC table since Tennessee did it in 1998.

(And no, this wouldn't open the door for including Penn St.'s '94 team, too. It's totally different. Don't be silly.)

Michael said...

Scott, I might have overstated Michigan's talent deficit a little, but there's no doubt that Michigan will always face a talent deficit against USC unless Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Penn State all implode the way that UCLA and Washington have and Michigan gets 60% of the top ten players in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Similarly, Michigan will face a talent deficit against Florida if UF gets most of the top-level talent in-state. In other words, the top end for Michigan's talent is not as great as it is for teams in California, Texas, or Florida, and it's harder for Michigan to bring in great talent because it has to go into someone else's backyard to get it. This was easier when Texas, LSU, and Penn State were all down and Michigan could raid those states, but that's not as true anymore.

Anon/CHG, there are all sorts of restrictions on journalists because they have to write for a lowest common denominator. I've often thought that there would be a market for a high-level sports analysis magazine, something like The New Republic or National Review as compared to Time and Newsweek, but the blogosphere would make such a venture tough to sustain.

Peter, I had the same thought when I was writing this, but HP is actually right (and totally uncontroversial) when he says that smaller programs need to be unconventional to win. The Service Academies illustrate this perfectly. Where he would go totally wrong is that he would dismiss the total dominance that USC has had in recruiting as the major factor for their success, just as he'll claim that Florida's future success has nothing to do with recruiting classes that have 5-6 five-star players. And he would probably have a coronary with the conclusion that Southern teams are dominant in college football.

Ed, you're right that the late 80s/early 90s Holtz teams had a lot of talent, although your analysis of their games against the Florida teams is a little skewed. '88 Miami was a better team and lost by one point in South Bend after getting screwed on a fumble call. '89 Miami clobbered ND by 17. '91 Florida was good, but they were also the third best team in the state. (Florida was very good, but they only became great when they got rid of Ron Zook as their DC.) '93 Florida State lost by seven in South Bend. Thereafter, as you note, ND's talent diminished. I think there are two points to be made here. First, it was very difficult for ND to sustain the talent levels that it brought in in Holtz's first few years because it's hard always being the road team in a recruiting fight. Second, ND had a bigger advantage in that era because college football hadn't proliferated on TV. Back then, ND was the only program that could sell the fact that they were on TV every week. Now, there are about ten programs that can sell that. To a lesser degree, Michigan has also been hurt by this fact.

Maybe the point that I should be making is that ND and Michigan have more of a chance to compete when there is equilibrium in the most talent-rich states. When USC, Florida, and Texas have competent rivals in recruiting, then their talent won't be thast disparate with that of Michigan and Notre Dame. Look at the lists of the top players in Texas. Oklahoma and A&M are nowhere to be found.

Jerry, I strictly limited myself to teams that won the national championship. As you mentioned, opening the door to "great teams that didn't win a title" creates all sorts of BS claims ('94 Penn State, '98 Ohio State, etc.) that cloud the issue. It's easy to establish the South's dominance without going that route.

Ed said...

Michael, I know we're splitting hairs, but I think your analysis of ND's performance against Florida teams is skewed. Even if we concede that Miami in 1988 was a better team, the 1989 game was hardly a "clobbering:" a close game became a comfortable win, because of an improbable play. (My own sense is that if the 88 and 89 games had been played on neutral fields, Miami would have won in 88; ND in 89 - that, of course, can never be proven).

Notre Dame won by a healthy 9 points in 90 against a Miami team that, barring that loss, would have won the NC (as opposed to 8-3-1 Colorado).

Florida in 1991 was not the the third best team in Florida. They beat Florida State that year 14-9 (good thing Spurrier hasn't gotten wind of that statement, or you would be sabotaged in any sort of blogpoll). Moreover they lost by 11 in New Orleans to a 3-loss ND team that was, by far, the worst of that 88-93 time-frame.

Florida State in 1993. The Seminoles, I like to think, won a NC, because of a 4th and 17 play with three minutes to play against ND, when a Charlie Ward pass thrown right at ND Safety Jeff Burris slipped through his hands and into the arms of FSU WR Kev McCorvey for a touchdown. If Burris simply bats that pass down, the final score is 31-17, which more accurately reflects the tone of that game, in my opinion.

All that said, I think there is a great deal of insight in this statement:

"ND and Michigan have more of a chance to compete when there is equilibrium in the most talent-rich states. When USC, Florida, and Texas have competent rivals in recruiting, then their talent won't be thast disparate with that of Michigan and Notre Dame. Look at the lists of the top players in Texas. Oklahoma and A&M are nowhere to be found."

This is something I have been thinking the entire recruiting season. The four most talent rich states in the country: Florida, California, Texas, and Ohio contain no more than one dominant program in each. All these dominant programs are rolling right now. That doesn't bode well for the rest of the country.