Monday, November 26, 2012

My Ballot Prepares for Hurricane Danielson

Alabama has opened as a 7.5-point favorite over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.  If the contest is close, then CBS will get what it has always wanted in that game: a tight game with direct national title implications between two historical powers with large fan bases.  Viewers remains glued to their sets, ratings are high, advertisers are thrilled, and Mike Slive grins to himself.

However, if the game is a blowout and Gary Danielson finds himself needing material to occupy the fourth quarter, we should all prepare for a huckster spending an extended period of time advocating for another all-SEC national title game.  Florida put themselves into that position by winning impressively in Tallahassee on Saturday, changing their impression from a punchless team that won a series of close games to a wily team that saved its best performances for its biggest games, save for one turnover-fest in Jacksonville.  In truth, Florida deserves to be ahead of Georgia at this stage and, depending on how much value one places on the quality of opponents beaten as opposed to margin of victory, possibly Alabama, as well.  Now, if Alabama wins on Saturday, then the Tide will have a fairly solid case to pass Florida.  If Georgia wins, they will also have a case, although not quite as strong as Bama’s. 

The major point is that even after Saturday, there won’t be a whole heck of a lot to separate those three teams.  Since Danielson operates from the presumption that the SEC is the best conference in the country by leaps and bounds (despite the fact that this is not at all clear-cut this year) and he has clearly reached a decision at some point that pandering to his viewers is the way to security and popularity, I’d bet that he looks at Florida being on par with Bama and Georgia and decides that the SEC Championship Game should be a play-in game to meet the Gators in Miami.  The chart comparing the quality of opponents beaten – a tactic that Danielson used in 2006 when it was convenient to argue for Florida over Michigan and then ignored last year when that metric supported Oklahoma State over Alabama – very well might make a reappearance.  Notre Dame’s repeated close wins will get prominent discussion, as will the fact that the Irish’s schedule looked tougher before the season than it actually played out.  And in the end, Danielson will achieve that most unlikely of results: he’ll make me sympathetic to Notre Dame.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My Top 25 is Paging David Gordon


I have been going through some reflection on how exactly I rank teams.  It started with a never-ending Twitter debate with Ramzy Nasrallah on Thursday that started as I was wrapping up my day at the office, continued as I was driving out of Midtown towards the Regal 24 at Shallowford, and only ended when the previews ended and Skyfall started.  The argument was over how far Alabama should have dropped when they lost to Texas A&M and the main point of contention concerned my tendency to use computer rankings like Sagarin and SRS.  The argument from Ramzy (bolstered at the outset by Brian Cook before Brian almost certainly got tired of the petty sniping) is that those rankings may be predictive, but they are not good at telling us who has actually had the best season.  My counter is that the predictive power of the Sagarin Predictor comes from its interpretation of past results, so it is in effect a referendum on the season to date. 

The debate led me to start thinking about my rules for rankings.  Specifically, what are the circumstances under which Team A should jump Team B when Team B has a superior record.  How much of a difference in strength of schedule is required to make that jump?  How much of a difference in margin of victory is required?  To me, those are the two relevant factors: whom did you beat and by how much?  Ramzy argued at one point that college football produces relatively small sample sizes, so using a computer rating is a fool’s errand.  My response would be that if we are dealing with a small sample size, then we need to use all available data, so casting aside margin of victory – a factor that supports Alabama because they were not forced to win a close game until November – is a poor decision.  But how much should we use it?  I still have Bama a spot behind Notre Dame, despite the fact that the Tide would be a double-digit favorite on a neutral field.  So what are my rules for using Sagarin?

And how much should I use the eye test?  I am a big believer in the idea that basing assessments on how a team looked to me is a terrible idea because there are all sorts of issues with human perception that cause us to make bad judgments.  One pretty spiral or form tackle can become our mental representation of a team, causing us to overrate them.  And yet, there is at least one instance in which I am letting the eye test affect my ranking of a team.  Florida is 10-1, they have played a brutal schedule, and according to both the Sagarin Predictor and SRS, they would be a one- to two-point favorite over Georgia on a neutral field.  As a friend pointed out to me yesterday, Florida’s yards per play margin has been better than Georgia’s in each of their five games against common opponents.  Still, I have Florida behind Georgia because every time I see Florida, their offense is appalling.  I cannot fathom the idea that a team could need a fourth quarter rally against Louisiana-Lafayette, culminating in a walk-off blocked punt touchdown, and then play for the national title a few weeks later.  Florida’s yards-per-play margin is worse than Georgia’s overall, but how much of that is down to playing a much tougher SEC schedule and not bullying overmatched non-conference opponents in the same way?  How much value do I give to the fact that Georgia beat Buffalo worse than Florida beat Bowling Green?

To sum up, I’m trying to think of rules to govern my irrational preferences, but I’m finding it hard to tie myself to the mast in a rational way.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Top 25 Mishmash


Not too much of interest this week, other than my regular complaint that when a team loses a close game against a higher-ranked team, then they should not drop.  LSU played #1 Alabama at home, out-gained them by a significant margin, led into the final minute, and this is a reason to drop them?  If you want to know why I like computers, then this is a good illustration.  (One counter: the Sagarin Predictor has LSU at #11, penalizing the Tigers for close games against inferior opponents, most notably the inexplicable 12-10 win over Auburn.  I gave consideration to putting LSU above Notre Dame before remembering the Auburn game.)

I’ll also renew my point about Michigan and Ohio State.  Ohio State is #5 in the AP poll, while Michigan is #28.  Sagarin has the teams as being totally even.  Again, here’s the question: if you flipped the two teams’ schedules and then knocked Braxton Miller out of a game in Lincoln in the second quarter, what would the two teams’ record be?  (One counter: Ohio State fans can make the legitimate point that Miller is a bigger guy than Denard Robinson and is therefore less likely to get knocked out for an extended period of time.  Also, Ohio State was not totally unprepared for an injury to their quarterback as Michigan was when their offense ground to a halt against the Huskers.)

By the end of my ballot, I was just alternating Pac 12 and Big XII teams.  Both conferences are just packed with good, but not great teams.  If Oregon and Kansas State both stay unbeaten, then we are going to get a lot of parsing between the middle classes of those two conferences.  I haven’t given a great deal of thought to the resumes of Oregon and K-State; I’ve kept the Ducks at #2 because they look great every week.  If the time comes, then I’ll give the two teams a harder look.  One thing that I will say is that Oregon deserves to be punished for their non-conference schedule, almost as a moral matter.  Without any central entity to force teams to play quality opponents, we rely on the programs themselves to do the honorable thing and schedule attractive games.  This is important for both maintaining fan interest and allowing voters and computers to draw meaningful connections between conferences at the end of the year.  In a startling reversal of fortune, Kansas State actually comes across as the more respectable program in a comparison with Oregon because the Wildcats scheduled Miami.  The Canes are not a good team this year, but there is at least a visible intent on the part of K-State to play a game that fans around the country would watch.  If the Ducks and Wildcats remain unbeaten, then I suspect that we will hear the names Arkansas State, Fresno State, and Tennessee Tech a lot during the month of December.  I’ll also add in a note to Mike Slive: both K-State and Oregon are going to get a bounce from the fact that they played nine-game conference schedules.  What would Alabama’s schedule look like with another conference game instead of Florida Atlantic?