Thursday, August 06, 2009

"You're Not Impressed That We Beat Chris Zurbrugg?"

What Thomas Friedman is to a Manhattan Project for alternative energy, I am to the BCS/non-BCS conference contretemps that have erupted since Utah whipped an Alabama team missing its best player. I just can't stop writing about it. I was worried that I was becoming a bit of a stuck record, but our old friend Mandel weighed in with a piece so rife with problems that writing about it makes me feel like a naval aviator at the Marianas Turkey Shoot. And what are those problems?

I'll cut to the chase: the biggest problem running through the entire article (and much of the criticism of the BCS) is the notion that the BCS is some sort of conspiracy to deprive mid-majors from the ability to play for the national title:

The BCS, which began in 1998, was designed to avoid situations like the one in '84, when the top two teams in the polls could not meet in a bowl game. However, because the system was founded by the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC) and Notre Dame, it's become significantly harder for a team from outside that group to rise to No. 1 or 2.
Stewart seems to have a hard time with logic, so I'll make this as plain as possible: under the current rules of the BCS, BYU would have played for the national title in 1984. The Cougars were #1 in the polls going into the bowls. They would have been #1 or #2 in the BCS rankings, especially the current incarnation of the polls that minimizes the role of computer ratings and emasculates those computers by denying them the right to use margin of victory.

So what has changed? The voters take strength of schedule into account far more than they used to. Think about it. Your average voter in 1984 got his news from the local paper. When he wasn't covering a game live, he had few options for watching them on TV. Thus, he would not have seen BYU or the teams that they played. Your average voter in 2009 can watch just about any team in the country because of the proliferation of televised college football. He is probably getting his news from ESPN,, and/or the blogosphere, all of which cover the entire country and expose the voters to a vast ocean of data. In short, voters are far more educated now than they used to be, which means they can look behind a shiny record. I wouldn't say that voters are smart, but they are smarter than they used to be and they are starting to get the concept that a 10-1 team can be better than an 11-0 team, or that teams don't have to move in lockstep as long as they keep winning. Mandel starts the story as follows: "Twenty-five years ago this fall, BYU hijacked college football. The sport has been fighting back ever since." Who is doing the fighting? The coaches and the voters in the Harris poll. If anyone is the villain, it's them.

And why is it some sort of nefarious conspiracy that voters are more interested in strength of schedule than they used to be? Mandel acts as if the BCS conferences and Notre Dame are some sort of mini version of the Freemasons or the Trilateral Commission for allegedly convincing the voters that they should take the "whom did you beat?" question seriously. This is a bad thing?

The story that Mandel tells about the '84 Cougars illustrates why voters are (or should be) skeptical about gaudy records. BYU beat #3 Pitt and then a Baylor team coming off of a bowl season in their first two games, which launched BYU into the top ten. As Mandel admits much later in the article, Pitt and Baylor both finished with losing records, but beating them gave BYU an early, misleading boost. BYU then struggled with two WAC opponents, leading back-up quarterback Blaine Fowler to whine "We felt like we had to win by 40 every week." Uh, when you're playing teams that a national champion should bury, then yes, you should win by 40.

Mandel then moves into a discussion of BYU ending up in the Holiday Bowl against the worst of Bo Schembechler's 21 Michigan teams:

Writers from the nation's major papers began descending on Provo to profile Edwards' improbable team. Rumors began to swirl that BYU would get out of its contract with the Holiday Bowl to play in the higher-profile Fiesta Bowl. That didn't happen, but officials from the six-year-old San Diego game (which had hosted BYU every year of its existence) tried feverishly to find a worthy opponent for the top-ranked Cougars.

Executive Director John Reid, hampered by his game's $500,000 payout, later recounted seven schools turned him down, including Doug Flutie-led Boston College. The selection committee settled on 6-5 Michigan, which had risen as high as No. 3 early in the season before QB Jim Harbaugh broke his arm in the fifth game.
Am I the only one who sees something missing here? Mandel takes a shot at the "seven schools" who were apparently afraid of playing BYU in the Holiday Bowl, but he glides right past the question of why BYU didn't try to play in the Fiesta Bowl, which ultimately pitted 8-4 Miami against 8-3 UCLA. In other words, two non-WAC teams that finished with winning records, a category of opponent that BYU didn't play in 1984. And we're supposed to believe that it's a bad thing that "college football" fought back? At the end of the article, BYU quarterback Max Hall makes the very reasonable statement that the way for a team like BYU to win the national title in the current era would be to beat "an Oklahoma, or a Florida or a Texas" and then go unbeaten. He's right about that. No mid-major has done that before, but that can't be the reason why there hasn't been a mid-major playing for a national title since 1984. No, it must be because of those bastards at the Harris poll taking strength of schedule into account.


Anonymous said...

A-effing-men, dude.

Paul Freet said...

Not sure BYU had much of a choice of Bowls. I'm quite sure the WAC champion was obligated to the Holiday Bowl. Anyhow, great post. The anti-BCS idiocy knows no limit.

Anonymous said...

I hate BYU, so rail on them all you want. But the Utah beat Alabama without its best player, is downright Kenny Bania gold. You do realize he didn't play defense and Utah scored at will? You do realize that Utah's sacks came up the middle, to the left, and to the right. It was flat out domination. The great myth that the SEC is king, and little guys cant compete, was shattered. Alabama and Utah lineup 10 times, Utah wins 9 times. You fail to mention that Utah dominated that game on the road. You also fail to mention that Utah was also playing men down. They had a backup punter playing linebacker. Anyway, take that alabama lost because it didnt have its best player on the road, and you will sell out venues far and wide. Because that's gold jerry.

Utah Utes 2007-2008 National Champions.

Michael said...

Right, the "myth" that the SEC is king was shattered when Utah beat Alabama. I guess Oklahoma and Florida didn't really play a few nights later. I guess Hawai'i never really played Georgia.

Three more points:

1. Are you aware that Tuscaloosa is 300 miles from New Orleans? Or that people who live in Louisiana might not like the Alabama Crimson Tide for certain reasons? Quit it with the home game BS. There were more Bama fans at the game, but the same would be true in Pasadena. One fan base grew from supporting a program with 12 national titles (however dubiously counted) and the greatest college coach of all-time; the other one did not.

2. Do you think it's theoretically possible that Alabama losing its star left tackle and having to shuffle its line around might have created the protection problems that you describe? Do you think that Utah's pass rush was magically better than anything that Bama had seen in the SEC? If so, then we should discuss all those Utah/MWC defensive linemen in the NFL.

3. Utah's own coach voted his team fifth before the bowl games. How, exactly, would Utah have beaten Florida when Florida has better coaches, better talent, and had outgained its opponents by significantly more than Utah had, despite playing a much tougher schedule.

Anonymous said...

Florida and Utah had one common opponent. Which team won by more points? White team had a better yardage discrepancy against Alabama (141 to 35)?

Also, while Tuscaloosa might be 300 miles from the Superdome, SLC is almost 1,800 miles away, and significant portions of the state of Alabama are pretty close to the Superdome. That was definitely a road game for Utah.

Michael said...

1. I'm sure that Alabama was just as motivated when playing for the SEC and national title against Florida as opposed to playing a consolation game in New Orleans WITHOUT THE OUTLAND TROPHY WINNER.

2. Let's play the two degrees of separation game. Florida beats Oklahoma by ten. Oklahoma beats TCU by 25. Utah beats TCU by three in OT after trailing the entire game. Florida by 38 over Utah? Or maybe we should look at Sagarin, which would have Florida as a 15-point favorite. Or maybe we should just rely on Kyle Wittingham ranked Florida four spots ahead of Utah before the bowls were played.

3. One team having more fans at a game than another does not make a road game. The game wasn't played in Tuscaloosa, it wasn't played on the surface on which Bama plays, and the Bama players weren't more used to the climate inside the Superdome.

Anonymous said...

The "motivational" argument is ridiculous; it works equally for both teams, its unknowable and unscientific (e.g. you don't know which Alabama players were disappointed, which players were pumped up because of perceived disrespect, which players were sick, etc.). Smart fans should never make that argument for major college athletics; since motivation is unknowable and of questionable value anyway, its explanatory power is nil.

Common opponent is better (though obviously flawed) than transitive evaluations. As for the oddsmakers, what did they have Utah-Alabama, -9?

One team having more fans at a game and being approximately 1500 miles from home makes the game essentially a home game.

Come on, SEC fans, just acknowledge that a decent (but not wonderful) Utah team was much better team than a Mighty (tm) Alabama team that was 15 minutes from an SEC title and national championship birth last year.

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Anonymous said...

Bama played like ballerinas in the Sugar Bowl last year, no doubt. Utah deserved to win. But Utah winning 9 out of 10 times? Really?