Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
02 Dec 2011
by Bill Connelly
This was a fun week to be a college football writer. Mike Leach reentered our lives, somebody named Tyler Van Tubbergen had a big game, and my whining about Andrew Luck being the undeserving Heisman favorite gained further traction. But it was mostly fun because of the wide range of opinions regarding the current Alabama-Oklahoma State situation.
Here are a couple of excerpts from some pieces I wrote this week. From my "Why An Alabama-LSU Rematch? Because Every Game Matters" piece on Tuesday:
I've always said the reason people hate the BCS is that it cannot figure out how to get three teams on the same football field. This year, however, its biggest problem is that it must select more than one. If LSU defeats Georgia this weekend, the Bayou Bengals will have established an airtight resume and will be as much of a slam-dunk title game selection as has ever existed. It isn't the BCS' fault that it cannot select LSU twice. [...]
[T]he job of the BCS is to pit the two best, most deserving teams in a two-team playoff. That is exactly what it is doing. Oklahoma State had its chance and suffered the worst loss of any one-loss team. Stanford and Virginia Tech had their chances and got blown out. Boise State got its chance and watched it sail wide right. Unless you want to advocate for Houston (I'm all ears), you just cannot get very far with any sort of "Someone else is more deserving" argument, and if you want to advocate for a playoff, you are just diluting a field that is still inferior to LSU (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Alabama) in every way.
If you want to make the case that Oklahoma State has the better resume, fine; they do indeed have more wins over Top 25 teams. But here's where I blow my own mind and defend Alabama by the same logic I usually use to defend Boise State: a team's true "resume" is built by how they perform on the field, not who they've had the opportunity to play. We can talk about how Oklahoma State has better wins, and we can talk about how Oklahoma State has by far the worse loss, but that's not how I care to evaluate teams.
At Football Outsiders, we evaluate teams based on every play and every drive. Simply assigning value based on a sample size of 12 results limits us severely. By comparing a team's performance on every play to how they should have been expected to perform, we get a much better read for which teams are truly the best. However, if you look at the current F/+ rankings, you see that the teams who play at the highest level aren't always the teams that win the most games. Wins and losses do matter, after all. If we had some playoff system in place, I wouldn't be arguing that a four-loss Florida State team deserves a spot over, say, 10-2 Kansas State just because their F/+ rating is higher. That said ... Oklahoma State and Alabama share the same record, and the Tide outpace the Cowboys by 5.2 percent in the F/+ ratings. That is a lot. And if you have performed better overall and can boast the same record, you get my (nonexistent) vote.
Here at Outsiders, I made it clear a couple of years ago that I do not hate the idea of a college football playoff. I do not hate the current system, but I am not either naive or principled enough to believe that I would protest against change in this regard. I fear bracket creep with a righteous passion (a four-team playoff would become six, then eight, while a 16-teamer would expand to 20 or 24 within a decade or two), but that is a concern for another day. The BCS will be redrawn in the next few years, and I fully expect a Plus One model to be adopted.
But as I mentioned on Tuesday, this year's primary problem is that only one team has truly separated itself from everybody else this year. Obviously, a playoff wouldn't help in years like this.
Let's look at some of the options on the table:
The Current System. In our current model, if LSU beats Georgia (or perhaps even if they don't), they will play either Alabama (a team they already beat) or Oklahoma State (a team that has suffered the worst loss of any one-loss team, a tumble against 6-5 Iowa State). LSU has proven itself against one of those teams already (and I cannot wait for the "LSU beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama beat LSU on a neutral field, but Alabama gets to be champion??" outrage if the Tide win), and FO's advanced stats are not enormous fans of Oklahoma State.
The Old System. When complaining about the BCS, a lot of people claim to want to go back to the old way of doing things, where SEC Champion LSU would end up whipping somebody like Michigan in the Sugar Bowl and claiming the national title. Honestly, that might be the most fair way to go this year, with LSU having already knocked off No. 2 Alabama, but in most years it would simply deprive us of finishing the season with a No. 1-No 2. matchup. We may want to claim that the old way was as good or better than the BCS simply because we don't like the BCS very much, but that doesn't make it true.
A Plus-One. There are two general approaches to a "Plus-One" model: either the top four in the BCS standings (or in some new method of choosing teams) are broken out into semifinals -- No. 1 versus No. 4, No. 2 versus No. 3 -- with the winners facing each other in a title game, or bowls unfolding as they did before (determined mostly by automatic bids and bowl allocations) with the top two teams meeting afterwards.
With both of these approaches, the odds of us ending up with an LSU-Alabama finale are quite high, but that is neither here nor there.
The Perfect Playoff. Let's expand it all the way to 16 teams using the method I established a while back. This season, it would result in something like the following matchups: Louisiana Tech at No. 1 LSU, No. 9 Oregon at No. 8 Arkansas, No. 18 TCU at No. 5 Virginia Tech, No. 23 West Virginia at No. 4 Stanford, No. 15 Wisconsin at No. 6 Houston, Northern Illinois at No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 10 Oklahoma at No. 7 Boise State and Arkansas State at No. 2 Alabama.
All of these playoff scenarios would be enjoyable (especially a 16-teamer with matchups like Boise State-Oklahoma on the blue field), but none of them would change the one thing we've learned in the regular season: LSU has been the best team. No matter who they play in the BCS championship, and no matter who they might play in a playoff structure, that is, to date, not really up for debate.
When college football began naming national champions, they did it with "best team of the season" in mind. The closer we get to a playoff, the further we get from that premise; it becomes more like "Best team in December and January." Maybe that's okay. It works for baseball and other sports, and hell, in our current structure, LSU could still lose to either Georgia, Alabama or Oklahoma State and still have been the "best team of the season" without winning the title. But it is worth noting that college football doesn't have to be like all of the other sports. It's okay to be different once in a while.
Texas A&M. The Aggies mastered the art of playing well without winning. They led 11 games at halftime, most by double-digits, and finished 6-6. Coach Mike Sherman, "the patron saint of dour, milquetoast refugees from the [NFL]," was fired yesterday to boot. You can legitimately make the case for Texas A&M as a top-25 team because, looking at every play and every drive, they were a damn fine team. But they continued to figure out ways to avoid actually winning, and now a new coach will lead them as they join the SEC.
South Carolina (17 spots, from 43rd to 26th). The Gamecocks still probably aren't as good as their 10-2 record, but you have to give them credit for persevering through quarterback Stephen Garcia's dismissal, running back Marcus Lattimore's injury, and receiver Alshon Jeffery's disappearance. Steve Spurrier has himself a pretty good defense in Columbia, and wow, did they do a number on Clemson last week.
Cincinnati (11 spots, from 34th to 23rd). The Bearcats beat Syracuse 30-13 last week, and quarterback Munchie Legaux looked quite strong in his second game succeeding the injured Zach Collaros. The win extended Cincy's Big East title hopes, but those were dashed last night when West Virginia beat South Florida at the last second. They do, however, hold the Big East's fate in their hands. If they beat Connecticut, West Virginia takes the title; if they lose, it's Louisville.
Vanderbilt (11 spots, from 59th to 48th). I was a little skeptical about the hire of James Franklin, but he has crafted a nice season for the 'Dores, who will go bowling after whipping Wake Forest.
Georgia (10 spots, from 23rd to 13th). As I wrote earlier today, Mark Richt has himself a damn fine team this year, even if they are still probably going to lose to LSU tomorrow.
Others: Florida International (60th to 51st), Air Force (89th to 80th), Central Florida (61st to 53rd), UConn (70th to 62nd), Minnesota (102nd to 94th).
Georgia Tech (17 spots, from 25th to 42nd). Georgia's two-touchdown win over Tech resulted in pretty heavy shifts for both teams. Still, Paul Johnson did a nice job of crafting an 8-4 bounceback season after missing a bowl in 2010; the Yellow Jackets were uneven and inconsistent, but they were still better than last year.
Wake Forest (13 spots, from 51st to 64th). The Deacs are going bowling and overachieved compared to their preseason projections, but they lost five of seven to finish the regular season. Jim Grobe's bag of tricks seemed to go empty after Wake beat Florida State on October 8.
Illinois (13 spots, from 45th to 58th). It is a rare feat, starting 6-0 and finishing 0-6, but Ron Zook's tenure as a head coach (at both Florida and Illinois), was nothing if not unique. Illinois failed to score more than 17 points in a game after their 41-20 win over Indiana on October 8. That's how you finish 0-6 despite a strong defense.
Virginia (10 spots, from 44th to 54th). The Hoos' four-game winning streak (and division title hopes) ended with a thud, as Virginia Tech wiped the floor with them. Still 8-4 is a nice second season for Mike London and company.
Others: UTEP (81st to 92nd), UCLA (74th to 84th), South Florida (31st to 41st).
Texas over Baylor (Spread: Baylor -2.5 | F/+ Projection: Texas by 4.0). The numbers don't trust either Baylor's defense or Texas' offense in this one, but Manny Diaz's spectacular defense gives the 'Horns the nod in the numbers. I'm not convinced, but we'll see.
Ohio over Northern Illinois (Spread: NIU -3.5 | F/+ Projection: NIU by 1.3). It's the same story with this one. Northern Illinois' offense and Ohio's defense are both spectacular. Their other units? Not so much.
I'm going with most of the Texas Tech-Baylor game. Baylor led 31-28 at halftime and ended up pulling away for a 66-42 win that included 1,061 yards (617 for Baylor, 444 for Tech). My alma mater (Missouri) might be heading off to the "field position and special teams" conference next year, but my heart still yearns for the occasional, ridiculous, light-up-the-scoreboard Big 12 night game. And with Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez headed to the Pac-12, we might have two ridiculously offense-and-pace-centric conferences soon. Go ahead and win the titles, SEC; these conferences will continue to win the aesthetics, which is almost as good. (Okay, it is nowhere near as good. But it sure is enjoyable.)
61 comments, Last at 06 Dec 2011, 12:16am by Alternator