Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Team of the Decade?

The poll question on ESPN.com this morning is an interesting one: which college team has been the most dominating in its sport this decade: UConn women's basketball, USC football, Florida football, or UNC basketball? Being a sucker for polls, I gave it some thought. I first ruled out UConn because I don't care about women's basketball. I know that the Huskies have been dominant, but it is easy to be dominant in a sport with lower interest and a more limited talent pool, just like it's easier for Rangers and Celtic to dominate in Scotland as compared to the bigger leagues. Plus, I'm sure that there are some minor sports where one school has been more dominant than UConn has been in women's hoops. (Colorado in skiing, perhaps?)

I ruled out Florida football because they were coached by Ron Zook for three years this decade. While their current peak may be a little higher than USC's peak in the middle of the aughts, they took about four years off: the three Zook years and Urban's first season when they were re-tooling. For the same reason, I ruled out UNC because of Matt Doherty. That left me with USC football, which has been consistently excellent since 2002.

The poll question does raise an interesting dynamic for this season in that Florida and USC could be playing for the title of team of the decade. It's too bad that Mark Sanchez didn't come back to school, because a season in which Florida and USC were #1 and #2 in August and then went on a collision course all year could be very interesting, not unlike 2005 when USC and Texas hurtled towards one another for four months before putting on an epic title game. LSU should also be in the discussion, since a national title and SEC title for the Tigers in 2009 would give them three national titles, four SEC titles, and five BCS bowl wins in the decade. (One caveat to that last number: all four of LSU's BCS wins have come in virtual home games in the Superdome.)

Here are the rankings for winning percentage as we enter the last year of the decade:

  1. Boise State - 0.85217
  2. Texas - 0.84348
  3. Oklahoma - 0.84298
  4. Southern Cal - 0.80870
  5. Ohio State - 0.79825
  6. Georgia - 0.77586
  7. Louisiana State - 0.76923
  8. Virginia Tech - 0.75424
  9. Florida - 0.75000
  10. Texas Christian - 0.74775

It looks like team of the decade isn't going to be an especially clear-cut question. Going into the 1999 season, the choice was fairly clear:

  1. Florida State - 0.87838
  2. Nebraska - 0.86161
  3. Florida - 0.83482
  4. Tennessee - 0.81982
  5. Penn State - 0.79091
  6. Texas A&M - 0.78571
  7. Miami-Florida - 0.78302
  8. Ohio State - 0.77928
  9. Michigan - 0.76818
  10. Notre Dame - 0.73394

Florida State had a national title and had finished in the top four every season. Nebraska had won three national titles and had put together one of the most dominating five-year stretches in modern college football history. The team that had the better season would likely end up winning the decade. I suppose that Florida was also in the discussion, as a conference and national title in 1999 would have given the Gators two national titles and six SEC titles (seven if you include 1990). In the end, Florida State went unbeaten and won the national title to claim the team of the decade title. As much as the sight of watching a young Michael Vick duel Florida State was epic, it would have been cool to see Florida State play Nebraska with history on the line.

Although USC and Florida were the two contenders at first glance for team of the aughts, that might have been a little bit of recency coloring my judgment (or maybe I shouldn't rely on ESPN to decide who is NOW!!!). LSU certainly deserves consideration. If Texas, Oklahoma, or Ohio State were to win the title this year, then those programs would have a pair of national titles to match LSU, Florida, and USC and they would also likely have an advantage in winning percentage. That said, Texas has only won one conference title in the decade and Oklahoma and Ohio State have had well-publicized struggles in BCS games, so these three appear to be pretenders to the crown. I'd also bet that they would be dragged down a little if we looked at computer rankings because their strength of schedule would not be on par with the SEC teams.

It's also interesting to me that LSU and Florida are on my short list for team of the decade because of their multiple national titles, but Georgia ranks ahead of both of them in terms of winning percentage. How different would our discussion be if Georgia had found its way into the national title game in 2002 and then won it? Moreover, if we accept the maxim that winning a national title requires a significant amount of luck, isn't Georgia just unlucky? After all, Georgia went 12-1 in 2002 and didn't get to play for the national title because two major conference teams went unbeaten, but LSU and Florida got to play for the title in 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2008 with one loss (and in one case, two losses). And that's before we get to the point that Georgia could have been a one-loss team in 2005 absent the D.J. Shockley injury, but they still would have been frozen out of the title game because they would have again had the misfortune of being a one-loss SEC champion in a year in which two major programs went unbeaten.

Finally, it bears noting that only two of the top ten from 1990-98 are also on the 2000-2008 list: Florida and Ohio State. If you expand the analysis to the top twenty from the two decades, then the holdover list expands to six: Florida, Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Tennessee, and Michigan. The latter three hold spots 18-20 this decade and all three stand a decent chance of not finishing in the top 20 for 2000-09, as none of them are projected to be especially strong in 2009.

The point is that college football is a little more fluid than I give it credit for being. While a program can be excellent from season to season, it's hard to be strong from decade to decade. While it's possible in spring 2009 to look at the recruiting bases for Florida, USC, and LSU and assume that they will always be good, these are the same programs that employed Ron Zook, Paul Hackett, and Curley Hallman. Nothing is certain.


Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

Minor sport where one team has been dominant:
Gymnastics and Georgia's five straight Championships, going for 6 in a row in a week or so.

Michael said...

An excellent example.

Anonymous said...

Or UGA men's golf, which has won two or three national titles, never finished out of the top ten (to my knowledge), and is currently ranked #1.

Klinsi said...

Choosing sports teams or anything else "of the decade" is a silly exercise based on an arbitrary, base-10 mathematical division of time. I expect such brain-dead analysis from ESPN but better from you Michael!

Caelus said...

Excellent post, Grits. This shows how utterly difficult it is to remain at the top of the heap from decade to decade. Remember when Nebraska, Florida State, Michigan (sigh), Arkansas, etc. were the awesome teams in college football?

Jesse said...

First, I don't agree with your statement about the UCONN womens team. Going undefeated four times and winning five national championships is not easy by any stretch. By your argument you might as well throw out USC's football team being dominate because they play in the Pac10 and it's easy to dominate amongst inferior competition right? The fact that you don't care about the sport or pay anttention to it doesn't not in any way make it irrelevant to the topic.

Finally, trying to decide which team was most dominate across multiple sports is illogical because one sport does not relate to another. There is no way to objectively decide because there is no correlation between the sports. How could one rightly compare women's diving to men's football? Trying to decide which team was most dominate within one sport is difficult enough, as you have proven here, much less trying to make that decision across differing sports.

It's really subjective.

Jesse said...

Bah, *does not*. Sorry.

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