Wednesday, November 03, 2010

My Top 25 is Thinking about Finches

On the one hand, this ballot was very easy. Whenever I get to the end of the ballot entry widget and Wisconsin is the 25th team that I'm adding to the rankings, I know that my internal clock for whom should be ranked is correct. This week, there were 25 teams in my head that deserved to be ranked. No more, no less.

On the other hand, check out the list of college football powers that are missing from the first ballot in November: Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas (those are the three winningest programs of all-time), USC, Tennessee, Penn State (we're now up to 60% of the all-time top ten), Georgia, Miami, and Florida (that's nine of the all-time top 15). This has not been a good year for the landed gentry. We've all been wondering since the summer if we are seeing 2007, but maybe we're actually seeing 1789. It would make perfect sense in a season like this to have Oregon play TCU or Boise State in the national title game.

Since we're on the subject, here are the factors that seem to be working against the college football elite right now:

1. Scholarship reductions, combined with an increase in the player pool. The obvious explanation that is offered for the difficulties in sustaining a major program is the 85-scholarship limit. That's true, but it's an incomplete answer. There are also far more available players than there were 20-30 years ago because of improvements in high school football, talent scouting, summer camps, nutrition, etc. Thus, the pool of top players is bigger at the same time as the ability of top programs to monopolize those players is smaller.

2. The rewards and pressures of coaching are greater. This works in a couple different ways. First, a coach can be set for life based on about ten years as a top coach (especially with a three-year stint in the NFL thrown in at the end for a final, massive payday). Thus, early retirement is a better option. Additionally, with a massive increase in the amount of media and with every Tom, Dick, and Michael having a blog, the scrutiny is greater, so the chances for burnout increase. (See: Carroll, Pete or Meyer, Urban.) Thus, we expect top coaches to burn hotter and shorter than they did before.

3. The Stephen Jay Gould explanation for why we don't have any more .400 hitters comes to mind with coaches:

Q: In your book you examine the inability of baseball players to hit .400 anymore and argue that it's because hitting has improved.

A: The overall batting average has been about .260 throughout the history of baseball. But the variation around that average has shrunk. It's at least plausible that variation declines because play improves. A batting average is a comparison between hitting and pitching. So if everybody's improving, as long as they improve at the same rate, the batting average will remain constant. But it gets to the point where everyone is so good that there's just not much variation anymore. Hitting .400 in baseball is a good example because there's a "right wall," if you will, of human limits. Given how our muscles work, there's just so much that the human body can do. There will always be a few individuals who, by dint of genetic gifts and obsessive commitment and training, will stand close to that right wall. That's where Ty Cobb was in 1911 and where Tony Gwynn is today. But there is this limiting wall. What has happened in baseball is that all aspects of play have improved enormously. Back in 1911, average play was so far inferior to where Ty Cobb was that his batting average could be measured as .420. Today, Tony Gwynn is just as good, maybe even closer to the wall than Cobb was. But the average player has improved so much that Gwynn's performance -- equal to or better than Cobb's -- is not measured as high.

On a program level or on a coaching level, it's harder to stand out anymore. It's harder to be Bear Bryant if the overall level of coaching is so high. Additionally, when a major program makes a bad hire, especially at the coordinator level (see: Robinson, Greg or Addazio, Steve), that bad coach will stand out like a sore thumb in a deeper pool. Likewise, major programs are less likely to get away with a mistake (like, say, converting from the Spread offense that has worked for a decade to a conventional style because of Garrett Gilbert) in a more competitive pool.

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