OK, let’s talk about the latest illustration of the futile task that college football’s movers and shakers demand: picking two teams out of 120 to play for the national title. I voted for Oklahoma State on resume grounds. They have played a tougher slate than Alabama. The Tide are getting by on the reputation of the SEC, despite the fact that it pretty clearly takes a back seat to the Big XII this year. The SEC was a top-heavy league with five quality teams, two of which Bama missed. Moreover, Oklahoma State looked good against their tough schedule, as only two of their wins were by single digits.
In addition, I have philosophical issues with Alabama having a chance to win the national title against LSU. One of the unique and positive aspects of college football is that it is the only American sport that doesn’t hit the reset button at the end of the regular season. It is possible for a team other than the BCS Championship Game to be the national champion, at least as declared by the AP. We had that result in 2003 when USC won a share of the national title despite the fact that they didn’t play in the title game.* When declaring a national champion, we should be looking at the whole body of work, rather than arbitrarily anointing the winner of the last game as the champion.** It’s with that framework in mind that I agree 100% with Clay Travis that LSU should win the AP poll as long as they aren't blown out by the Tide. What does Alabama prove with close win at the Superdome, other than that they split a home game and a neutral site game with LSU and otherwise played a significantly easier schedule? This isn’t just a matter of what I want to see as a viewer; it’s a matter that I don’t want an inconclusive national title game, which is exactly what the Bama-LSU rematch is going to be.
* – Yes, the coaches have agreed to give the crystal ball to the winner of the national title game automatically. I view that decision as an abdication of responsibility, a desire to tie everything in a neat little bow when life doesn’t work like that.
** – I will argue to the death that for all the complaints about the notion of a two-team playoff voted on by a mismatch of distracted coaches and minimally-qualified Harris Poll voters, I’ll take that over a system that can declare the 83-78 Cardinals World Champions or can decide that the 14-6 Giants are more deserving of eternal glory than the 18-1 Patriots who ended their regular season beating the Giants on the road.
All that said, I also agree with Matt Hinton that there is no way to be confident that Bama or Oklahoma State has a better resume than the other. This is a great summary:
You like Alabama? Sorry. Oklahoma State has twice as many wins against teams ranked in the current BCS standings. It has seven wins against teams that finished with winning records; Alabama has three. OSU is second nationally in scoring, first in defensive takeaways and usually spent the fourth quarter throttling down in garbage time. Two of its three wins against top-20 opponents came by five touchdowns. Robert Griffin III, soon to be awarded as the best quarterback in the nation? Oklahoma State picked him off twice and led Baylor 49-3 after three quarters. Need I mention what happened Saturday night against the Sooners?
The Cowboys are outright conference champions against a round-robin conference schedule. The Crimson Tide missed two ranked teams in their conference and didn't even win their own division.
Oh, so you like Oklahoma State now, huh? Wrong again. Alabama bludgeoned its opponents by the widest margin of victory in the nation. Its seven SEC wins came by an average of 30 points apiece. Its closest win all season was 16 points, at Penn State, and it wasn't that close. 'Bama leads the nation in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense and third down defense. At 8.8 points per game, the Tide are the least scored-upon team in Division I in more than a decade.
The only thing standing between Alabama and a perfect season is a three-point overtime loss to the undisputed No. 1 team that came down to field goals. Oklahoma State blew a 17-point lead to Iowa State. In late November.
You say Oklahoma State succeeded against a tougher schedule, I say Alabama has been more dominant on a more consistent basis. Let's call the whole thing off.
As someone who touts yards per play as a good baseline statistic with which to measure teams, the only argument that I would add is that the Tide are better on a per-play basis than Oklahoma State. The Pokes are good, outgaining their opponents by 1.86 yards per play, but the Tide are off the charts with a 3.14 YPP margin. That is a number reflecting the fact that Bama has been utterly dominant in its wins this year. Too bad so few of those wins were over teams with winning records.
Hinton ends with this perfect description of the fundamental problem with college football’s postseason:
The only thing more ridiculous than using the BCS to determine a champion is pretending that it isn't ridiculous. After 14 years and a dozen legitimate, unresolved controversies, we are all fully aware that the emperor has no clothes. It never has. As the evolutionary link between the old, pell mell bowl system and a full-fledged playoff that actually determines a football champion by playing football, it's run its course. Stop the madness. Bring on a bracket. Or just point to LSU a mile ahead of the rest of the pack and declare the Tigers the champions right now. But stop splitting hairs.
I started and ended a post on the Florida-Michigan debate five years ago making the same points:
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…
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.
I made these points as a Michigan socio who desperately wanted to see the Wolverines get a second shot at Ohio State in Glendale. (As it turns out, Buckeye fans should have been hoping for the same so they would be spared Jim Tressel turning into Unfrozen Caveman Coach: “your spread formations and running plays frighten and confuse me.”)
I mention this concept of trying to present rational arguments in a consistent way because the villains of the weekend - more than the BCS, Roy Kramer, Bill Hancock, Jim Delany, Nick Saban, or the person who convinced Herman Cain to expose himself to the scrutiny of a Presidential bid - is Gary Danielson and the people behind CBS’s production of the SEC Championship Game. At this point, Craig James is credible when compared to Danielson. Gary is quite good when he is discussing x’s and o’s, but when he steps away from the game that he is covering into bigger picture discussions, he embarrasses himself.
In 2006, Danielson and the SEC on CBS team spent the fourth quarter of Florida’s win over Arkansas lobbying for the Gators to play for the national title over Michigan. Their argument was based on the fact that Florida had played a tougher schedule, which they demonstrated with a graphic comparing the teams that the Gators and Wolverines had beaten. Guess what metric CBS did not use yesterday? You guessed it, the one that favored the SEC team in 2006, but cut against the SEC team in 2011. Moreover, consider the fact that CBS was ready to go with graphics to begin with. I have plenty of criticisms of the way that ESPN/ABC do games (I was bitching in this space last week about discussing Urban Meyer potentially taking the Ohio State job during the fourth quarter of a very close Michigan-Ohio State game), but I never get the sense that they are presenting a legal case for the teams that they cover over the teams that they don’t. At times during the fourth quarter yesterday, I felt like I was at a mediation, watching one side make a PowerPoint presentation as to their strengths of their case and the weaknesses of mine.
And leaving aside the fact that CBS apparently has the sports equivalent of Roger Ailes doing its SEC games and they think that no one remembers their convention speech in 2006, the remainder of the argument was shoddy in two more ways. First, Danielson never bothered to acknowledge that he said before and during the LSU-Alabama game that he was against the idea of a rematch. When it was in the network’s interest to bill the November game as an end-all, be-all, Danielson said that there shouldn’t be a second edition. When it was in the network’s interest to go to bat for one of its teams in December, they did so without acknowledging the massive inconsistency. Second, Danielson cited the fact that Oklahoma State is 106th in total defense and that disqualified them from consideration as a potential national champion. One of the main reasons why the Pokes give up a lot of yards is that they have a no-huddle offense that scores quickly, so their defense is on the field for a lot of plays. If you look at their defense on a per-play basis, they allow 5.31 yards per play, good for 52nd in the country. In case you’re wondering, Auburn allowed 5.4 yards per play in 2010, good for 55th nationally. Can someone refresh my recollection as to whether Danielson had an issue with the Tigers playing for the national title?
I could be tilting at windmills here, but it is not good for the SEC that Danielson and CBS are filling the role of Baghdad Bob for the league. There is already something of a backlash against the SEC, partially as a result of jealousy regarding the conference’s success, and partially for more legitimate reasons, such as oversigning (a topic that will surely get some attention in the lead-up to an Alabama-LSU title game). The facts that the league is getting both spots in the BCS Championship Game and that its network broadcast partner is openly shilling for its teams will be another reason for people outside the South to look for chances to get even. SEC football can succeed on its own merits. It doesn’t need the unsubtle assistance of a former Purdue quarterback to prosper.