Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Barnhart's False Dichotomy

Professor Tom Collier, one of my favorite teachers in college, addressed Harry Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan by saying that the answer all depends on the question that you ask. If the question is "was dropping the bombs better than invading Japan?," then the answer is obviously yes. If the question is "was dropping the bombs (and especially the second bomb over Nagasaki after we had already made the point that we had an unprecedented weapon) better than letting the diplomatic process play out?," then the answer is a lot less clear because there is a lot of evidence that the Japanese were about to surrender anyway.

I was reminded of that lesson when I read Tony Barnhart's "what if Auburn loses to Alabama and beats South Carolina?" piece yesterday because Barnhart frames the debate in such a way that it inherently favors Auburn:

If the choice is among 12-1 Auburn, 12-0 Boise State and 12-0 TCU for a No. 2 vote, who do the pollsters choose? Do they take a one-loss team from the conference that has won four straight national championships? Or do they use the controversy surrounding Newton as an excuse to give one of the little guys a chance?
In other words, do the voters make their decision based on precedent (the SEC's performance in BCS Championship Games) or conjecture (the swirling rumors about Cam Newton's recruitment)? If you pose the question that way, then the answer is obvious. However, Barnhart ignores the possibility that if Auburn loses to Alabama, then Boise State will have a better resume and would therefore be the more deserving team to go to Glendale. By ignoring the "which team is better if Auburn loses to Alabama?" question, Barnhart controls the answer.

If we ask the right question, then the Broncos come out ahead. Boise has dominated their schedule to a sick degree. They are #2 in the nation in yards per play gained and #1 in yards per play allowed. Their yards per play margin of +3.85 is unlike anything that I've ever seen. (By comparison, 2004 Utah, which is the other recent mid-major team that was deserving of national title consideration, was +1.8.) The major computer polls that account for scoring margin - Sagarin, Massey, and SRS - all place Boise State at #2 behind Oregon. In short, Boise State has a case to play for the national title even if Auburn doesn't lose. Personally, I'd still have Oregon versus Auburn if both finish unbeaten, but it's not a foregone conclusion if you look at the numbers. If Auburn does lose one of its last two games, then the Broncos have to hurdle the Tigers, not because of Cecil Newton, but because Boise State is a great football team with a compelling resume.

Barnhart's precedent point has a number of flaws. First, Boise State can equally point to precedent since they are 2-0 in BCS bowls (and I think that they were underdogs both times). Second, none of the four SEC teams that have won the last four national titles were anything like Auburn on defense. (And let's remember that this is Tony Barnhart we're talking about, the guy for whom the '80 Georgia/'09 Alabama model of tough defense, great running, and a game manager quarterback is positively arousing.) Third, this edition of the SEC isn't quite as good as the last four, mainly because the SEC East has been a disaster zone (as evidenced by the fact that South Carolina won it).

I'm as much of an SEC homer as the next resident of the Peach State, but columns like Barnhart's rein in that tendency. To be worthy of the title, Mr. College Football ought to acknowledge what Boise State has put together this season. I'm no fan of the Broncos, but it's hard to argue with their results.

No comments: