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Stadium and Main: August 2007

Monday, August 20, 2007

Attention College Football Poll Voters

This needs to stop. As a fan of the game who devotes hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars per year to my team and the sport as a whole, I just can’t deal with this crap anymore.

Somewhere along the way, between the 8,000 preview magazines, the talking heads on ESPN, and the trash-talkers on the message boards, something really bad happened: voters forgot how to vote. For some reason, people started questioning what their votes should be based on, or how they should rank teams in the preseason. It has come to this:
“I take a different approach to the preseason poll. It’s not a ranking of the best teams right now. Who cares about the best team in the middle of August? My preseason ballot is a projection of how I think the teams will end up in January.

(And where teams end up is a function of their schedules. For instance, Texas and West Virginia are threats to go undefeated in large part because of who they play and who they don’t play. Schedules aren’t everything in college football, but they are close to everything.)”
Those words were written here, by Associated Press college football poll voter Jon Wilmer. I have many problems with this, but I’ll focus on two major issues:

(1) Rankings are about which team is better

As a “consumer” of the Associated Press poll, I want actual rankings, not “projections.” “Who cares about the best team in the middle of August?” Me, along with millions of other fans! That’s why they have the poll! That being established, how should we rank the teams? Well, you’ve probably seen those US News Rankings for colleges, law schools, et cetera. Like college football rankings, they are subjective, but they are also based on a simple premise: The top-ranked school is better than the school ranked #2, and so on. You’ll notice that they don’t rank Vanderbilt ahead of Harvard because “Harvard has to compete with Princeton, Penn, and other Ivy League powers,” while “Vanderbilt is the class of the academically average SEC” or some garbage like that. They rank Harvard ahead of Vanderbilt because Harvard is a better school than Vanderbilt. That’s it. Likewise, they don’t project where schools will be ranked down the road; they rank the best schools, in order, based on the data available at that time. It’s a pretty simple concept.

As one commenter put it:
“If you believe that this is the FINAL order at the end of the season, why should you be allowed to vote all season long? Voting in this manner at the beginning of the season (what you think will be the order at the END of the season), makes about as much sense as keeping it that way ALL season… Your vote will be suspect all season long now because you have exposed your prejudices….”
Word. And you know it’s bad when Wolverines and Buckeyes are agreeing:
The AP Top 25 is supposed to be a ranking of the best 25 teams in Division I-A in order of 1-25. This means you’re saying there are 25 teams in the country that are better than Ohio State? The fact that the AP allows you to vote in this poll destroys its credibility.”
Now, I don’t mind if someone really believe that Team X isn’t a top 25 team (even if Team X happens to be a traditional power). But check out Wilmer’s rationale for omitting OSU:
“Because I think the Buckeyes will finish with a handful of losses, they are not in my preseason top-25. Again, they might be one of the 25 best teams right now, but I don’t think they’ll deserve to be ranked in January, and that’s what I’m interested in here.”
I’m glad that that’s what you’re “interested in here,” Jon. But that’s not what these rankings are for. The rankings are about who is better than who, whether it be on August 17th, October 7th, or January 9th. So if you think the Buckeyes are a top 25 team now, take a minute and figure out where you would rank them instead of saying “forget it, they’re gonna end the season on a losing streak anyway.”

And it’s a bit unsettling that Jon thinks the Buckeyes won’t “deserve to be ranked in January” based on possible losses to Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I fear that Jon falls into the category of voters who seem to think that it doesn’t matter which team is better, all that matters is who lost more recently (and junk like that). In fact, Jon basically admits to a related notion when he states, “Schedules aren’t everything in college football, but they are close to everything.” No, Jon, you’ve got it wrong. Your job is to cut through the B.S., compare the teams (based on their schedules and results, yes), and tell us which teams you think are better than others. You should not have the wool pulled over your eyes by an average team with a weak schedule. You’re supposed to be smarter than that.

I understand that teams generally should fall in the polls if they lose, but people need to understand and accept this: A five-loss team Ohio State team can be better than a one-loss TCU team. Rank the teams based on which team you honestly think is better. All other factors are irrelevant.

(2) Perception becomes reality

Why does one measly ballot in a preseason poll matter so much in the grand scheme of things? Well, in my opinion (and I think there’s a fair amount of truth to this), these polls become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you see something enough, or state something repeatedly, it magically becomes true. See, Mr. Wilmer might think that he’s doing no harm with his rankings. In fact, he might drop West Virginia from #3 to #8, or Texas from #2 to #10 after the first week of games (assuming he follows through on his promise to start voting based on the quality of teams, not the ease of schedules). But the damage has already been done. Mr. Wilmer is contributing to the perception that these teams with weak schedules actually are deserving of high rankings. When Team X is ranked between 3rd and 6th in every preseason poll simply because they have an easy road to a BCS game, the general public (and the average voter?) starts to believe that Team X is a Top 5 team. And why wouldn’t they? The polls say they are, so they must be, right? It’s your basic Psych 111 experiment, minus all of the sorority girls. Mr. Wilmer might believe that Florida would definitely beat West Virginia, or that LSU would handle Texas, but he’s telling the public, including his ballot-holding colleagues, a different story. Sure, he explains his “logic” on the website I linked, but how many people actually read that? All that Joe Fan sees is “West Virginia, #3,” and that’s that.

And while many of the premises and conclusions of this recent ESPN analysis are inherently flawed (like the fact that they completely ignore that “power programs” are more likely to be “overrated” since they have nowhere to go in the polls but down), the bottom line is that if you start out ranked high, you have a much better chance to win the national championship:
“Evidence A: Since 1991, college football's national championship has come from outside the top 10 of the preseason Associated Press top 25 poll only four times -- Michigan was 14th in 1997, Oklahoma was 19th in 2000, Ohio State was 13th in 2002 and LSU was 14th in 2003.

Evidence B: During the last 20 seasons, 13 teams have lost a game and still managed to finish the regular season ranked in the top two in the BCS standings or either poll of record. But only one of those teams -- LSU in 2003 -- was ranked lower than eighth in the preseason poll.

So if your favorite team is beginning the 2007 season outside the top 10 in the AP or ESPN/USA Today coaches' polls, you'd better hope for an undefeated season. Otherwise, your team has a very small chance of winning the national championship.”
The fact that Mr. Wilmer decides to “take a different approach” to his ballot is unbelievably frustrating. He’s like the kid who ruins gym class for everybody else because he’s too selfish and aloof to play by the rules. His actions have an impact on many other people, but he’s too obtuse to recognize it, Shawshank style. Now, I understand that it’s not the end of the world here, but when you’re an AP voter you’re supposed to rank the teams, not try to see the future in your crystal ball. It’s a responsibility, and it’s one that Jon Wilmer apparently doesn’t take too seriously.


“If you have a beef with my ballot, fine … bring it on. Just come with facts and logic.”
OK, Jon, here you go... You stated:
“Once the games begin, my ballot will reflect up-to-date performance. But there’s nothing substantive for the preseason poll, so I turn mine into an end-of-year projection.”
I love it, Jon. You tell us that there is no substantive information available to make a preseason ranking, then you go on to make projections based on… you guessed it, substantive information!! “Substantive,” as in “real or actual” information. Stuff like returning starters, coaching changes, experienced QBs, and whatnot. Some examples:
“#3 WVU: Arguably the best QB/TB combo in the country in Pat White/Steve Slaton.

#6 Michigan: Defense won’t be what it was in ‘06, but it doesn’t have to be with Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham.

#10 Penn State: Bevy of returning starters, veteran QB (Anthony Morelli).

#12 Florida State: With Jimbo Fisher taking over the playcalling duties from the overmatched Jeff Bowden, the Noles should finally play to their potential.

#17 UCLA: With 20 returning starters, Coach Karl Dorrell had better get it done, or he might be done.

#23 Southern Miss: My sleeper pick, the Golden Eagles return 16 starters from a nine-win team.

#25 Purdue: Looking for a BCS sleeper? The Boilermakers have 20 returning starters.”
So Jon, if there’s no “substantive” information on which to base your rankings, then why even submit a preseason ballot at all? Just because you haven’t seen a game this year doesn’t mean you don’t have some idea of what to expect from players like Chad Henne and Steve Slaton, or coaches like Jimbo Fisher. You seem to love this “returning starters” statistic, yet you think that’s not “substantive?” If Michigan returned zero starters, would you really have them ranked so highly? I think you get my point. Or maybe you don’t.

It seems like Jon is trying to run before he learns to walk. He’s telling us that he doesn’t have enough information to rank teams in August, but that he has enough information to predict where they will finish the season in January?! You can’t have it both ways, Jon. I think you missed a few steps there.

And this is a man that is determining national championships, folks.

All of you voters out there need to start using your heads. You don’t rank teams based on where you think they will finish, who has the easier (or tougher) schedule, or who has the prettiest cheerleaders. “Which team is better?” That’s all you’ve gotta ask yourself. And please take some time to figure it out. It is part of your job, in case you forgot.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Hopes, Expectations, and Things I Wanna See (Part 2)

- I hope we get the kicking game resolved ASAP. Things seemed shaky at the spring “game,” but Lloyd recently said that Bryan Wright has been reaching the end zone on kickoffs. That would be nice, especially considering the new rules (kickoffs from the 30 on the short tee, not the 35). The offensive talent of 2003 was hindered by a poor punting game. Let’s hope this year’s crew isn’t brought down by a poor kicking game.

- I expect Chad Henne to rip it up. Michigan QBs are generally at their best during their senior season (duh), and Chad knows that he’s playing not only for championships, but for NFL Draft position. Considering the talent at WR and the imminent return of TE Carson Butler, Chad will have no shortage of targets.

- I wanna see more big plays from the defense. Sure, we had a great defense (at times) last season, but there weren’t many huge plays. In non-garbage time (sorry, LaMarr Woodley and Max Pollock(!)), I believe we only had one defensive touchdown: Burgess’ pick-six to open the Notre Dame game. These are things that highly-talented defenses like USC and OSU seem to come by more often than us (or maybe that's just my perception?), and we might need a few plays like these to win a close game or two. Plus, these are plays that can give a big confidence boost to a fairly young defense. Easier said than done, I know.

- I hope we can adequately replace two unheralded Special Teams players: Gunner Darnell Hood and Long Snapper Turner Booth. People always say you never hear about the Long Snapper unless there’s a bad snap, and that’s probably why we never heard anything about Turner Booth (except when he recovered a fumble). Darnell Hood was very solid as one of the Gunners – making many quick tackles and rarely overrunning a play or getting called for a penalty. I think we can replace his speed, but can we find somebody as disciplined?

- I expect a fumbled snap. Maybe I'm just trying to "reverse jinx" it, but with a new Center (Justin Boren), and whispers of more shotgun formations, I think we're gonna see a snap or two hit the ground this year.

- I wanna see more realistic play action. I’m no football coach, but I watch a lot of college football, and it’s clear that many players can’t help but bite on hard fakes. And I’m not talking about Henne hiding the ball behind his back or anything crazy – just a more believable fake handoff would do it. But more often than not, it looks like our players are just going through the motions without actually selling the handoff. The other side of the “players will bite on a hard fake” coin is that today’s players are smart enough not to bite on a weak fake. Considering Henne and Hart have been working together for 3 seasons, you would think that great play action would be easy to pull off.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Big East: Overrated or Excluded?

Looking at what the Big East did last year, and what they might do this year, I’m a bit torn as to how I feel about the conference’s place in the college football world. As this research shows, the Big East has never been that good. But where do they stand now? Let’s begin…

Argument #1: The Big East is Overrated

The Big East as we know it today is only 2 years old. After the defections of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College to the ACC, many college football fans (including myself, to an extent) predicted doom for the 8-team Big East. West Virginia’s 11-1 season in 2005 helped allay that scenario, capped by a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. In 2006, the Big East’s “big three” had a handful of memorable games, many of which received nation-wide Thursday night exposure on ESPN. Rutgers was the feel-good story of the year, and the Big East received more positive publicity than it had in years. Many people claimed that the Big East was “back.” But more analysis is warranted.

Fact: The Big East went 5-0 in bowl games last year.

In case you didn’t know that, now you do. And you’re going to hear it all year when the ESPN crew talks up West Virginia, Louisville, and Rutgers, and tries to convince us that South Florida is the next Florida State. How about… no? Mark May will likely be the worst offender. [We get it, Mark – you went to Pitt. I’d rather have him say “I love the Big East” every five minutes than try to argue that Pitt-WVU is the best rivalry, or that WVU-Louisville is the game of the year. He’s doing a great job replacing Trev Alberts.]

Opinion: The Big East beat approximately nobody in bowl games last year. Here’s the breakdown:

Louisville (Orange Bowl) – Beat Wake Forest, 24-13

A BCS bowl win, but… Wake?!

West Virginia (Gator Bowl) – Beat Georgia Tech, 38-35

WVU struggled with a Georgia Tech team that had a joker for a QB (Reggie Ball), but admittedly a great WR (Calvin Johnson). The Mountaineers gave up 35 points and were down by 18 before GT choked. If WVU loses this game, which they probably should have, are we even talking about them as the 6th-best team in the country? Maybe we are, just due to lack of viable options. But that’s kinda beside the point. The point is that the Big East played a weak bowl schedule. Continuing…

Rutgers (Texas Bowl) - Beat Kansas State, 37-10

This was a Kansas State team that lost to Baylor and Kansas, and finished the season 7-6. KSU had a winning record thanks to a 24-23 home victory over Illinois State. Whoa. So, yeah, KSU stunk last year. No Ell Roberson or Darren Sproles to be found on that team.

South Florida ( Bowl) – Beat East Carolina, 24-7

East Carolina?!

Cincinnati (International Bowl) – Beat Western Michigan, 27-24

I hate to be redundant, but… Western Michigan?! Cincinnati almost pulled a reverse-WVU, after leading 24-0 in the 2nd Quarter and allowing 24 straight points.

Now, I don’t have the time or energy to go into a full bowl breakdown from last year, but let me list the Big Ten’s and SEC’s bowl opponents, and see how they compare to the Big East’s:

Big Ten bowl opponents

Texas Tech

SEC bowl opponents

Ohio State
Notre Dame
Penn State
Virginia Tech
Oklahoma State

The top two-thirds of the Big Ten and SEC bowl schedules look like a who’s who of college football’s elite. Florida, Ohio State, USC, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Texas, and Virginia Tech were all ranked in the Top 10 last year, some of them for the entire year. Meanwhile, three-fifths of the Big East’s bowl opponents were never ranked in the Top 25 at any point in the 2006 season. None of the five were ranked in the Top 10 at any point.

On a related note, I think that if you look at the bowl match-ups and results from any year, you will find that (1) the Big Ten and SEC play the hardest slates, year-in and year-out, and (2) the Big East, to put it nicely, doesn’t. The other BCS conferences fall somewhere in the middle. I find it unbelievable how so many people are quick to credit the Big East for a 5-0 bowl record while bashing the Big Ten for a losing bowl record. It’s the opponents, idiots!

So can we just stop with the Big East bowl record love? It’s meaningless. The Big East had what some called a "breakout" year last year, but a lot of it was accomplished with smoke and mirrors (and the exact same thing might happen this year, it appears (see below)). A Louisville win over the worst Miami team in decades, some exciting Thursday night games, Rutgers’ first ever bowl win, intriguing late-season games thanks to smart scheduling (having the best teams play each other later), and a 5-0 bowl record thanks to possibly the worst bowl schedule for any BCS conference, ever… That’s just not enough for me. As it stands right now, the Big East is like the kid who "earned" high school valedictorian honors by acing remedial math, shop, gym, and that class where everybody gets an "A" (each school has one). Until more real progress is shown on the football field, I’m not buying the hype.

Argument #2: The Big East is Excluded

But progress is the problem, and that’s why I can’t hate the Big East too much. See, now comes the part where Big East fans complain that progress cannot be made since “name” programs from big conferences keep shying away from non-conference games against the “rising” programs in the Big East. This is a legitimate argument, and one that is directly related to the weak bowl slate. Because the Big East is seen as inferior in the eyes of many, they don’t get the big-time bowl games ( Bowl?), and as a result they don’t play a strong bowl schedule.

You have to think that as college football becomes more popular, and the Big East continues to increase its exposure (thanks to those weeknight games on ESPN?), some intriguing non-conference games will get scheduled and the Big East bowl schedule will, eventually, improve.

Fans of major programs would actually like to see a top Big East team on their schedule, which wasn’t the case just a few years ago. In fact, WVU has already set up home-and-homes with Auburn, Colorado, Michigan State, and Florida State. Louisville will soon be playing Georgia Tech, Oregon State, and Georgia. And Rutgers will start a long-term series against Notre Dame in 2010. Even Michigan fans like myself are hearing rumors of games against Rutgers (at the Meadowlands?) and/or Louisville, both of which would be great for Big East scheduling and college football in general.

While I’m sure they don’t need or care about it, my advice to Big East fans would be to have patience. Right now, you are feeling the effects of poor scheduling practices and the ACC raid, both of which have left you with some unbelievably weak non-conference games (see below). And people like me are calling it like they see it: not pretty. But the national respect that you desire can be earned in the next few years. It just won't come from winning ESPN’s Bowl Challenge Cup by playing a bunch of scrubs.

Looking ahead to 2007

Enough about 2006. The 2007 season is just around the corner, and WVU seems to be the consensus pick to win the Big East. The Mountaineers are getting lots of national acclaim, with some even predicting a BCS Championship Game run. Let’s look at WVU’s schedule for the upcoming season:
Sat Sep 1 Western Michigan
Sat Sep 8 @ Marshall
Thu Sep 13 @ Maryland
Sat Sep 22 East Carolina
Fri Sep 28 @ South Florida
Sat Oct 6 @ Syracuse
Sat Oct 20 Mississippi State
Sat Oct 27 @ Rutgers
Thu Nov 8 Louisville
Sat Nov 17 @ Cincinnati
Sat Nov 24 Connecticut
Sat Dec 1 Pitt
So… they should win every game, right? The game against Louisville will be a challenge, but when you’re trying to decide if your toughest road game is against Maryland, South Florida, or Rutgers, you’ve probably got a pretty easy schedule. If that was Michigan’s schedule, I’d be booking a trip to New Orleans right now. Heck, if Oklahoma, Tennessee, Cal, or any other “good but probably not great” team in this pre-season’s rankings had that schedule, they’d be booking flights, too.

Listen, I’m not saying that WVU is terrible. They’re a good team with an explosive offense (especially rushing) and an extremely suspect defense. They can play with anybody, but they can also lose to an average team (like they did last year against South Florida… at home). I mean, are they really strong enough to warrant a pre-season #2 ranking? This is one of the reasons I get annoyed with pre-season rankings. Do people think WVU is that good, or are they just looking at their schedule and saying “there’s no way they’re gonna lose!” I think that it’s mostly the latter. For the record, I’d rank the Mountaineers somewhere between 10 and 12 in my pre-season poll. They're a good team, and if they went undefeated and were very impressive in doing so, I wouldn’t necessarily be against them getting a BCS Title shot (although I might be). But as I said above about the entire Big East, I’m just not buying the hype right now.

Before I get too sidetracked, I should mention that WVU isn’t the only team with a weak schedule this season. Look at what the rest of the Big East’s big three has in store for the non-conference:


Murray State
Middle Tennessee
@ Kentucky
@ NC State


Norfolk State
@ Army

Wow. Now, before Big East fans get upset, I should state that South Florida plays at Auburn, Pitt plays Michigan State and UVA, and Syracuse plays at Iowa. But still… come on! If Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State played the non-conference schedules that WVU, Louisville, and Rutgers play this season, they would get trashed. Absolutely trashed. But for some reason, this has slid under the radar this season with the big three Big East teams. Apparently we're supposed to look forward to WVU-Louisville while glossing over the fact that they took a page out of Bill Snyder's (scheduling) playbook?


The Big East is both overrated and excluded – for now. In the next few years, their best programs will get to prove themselves against some serious players from the power conferences. Then, and only then, will we have a reliable barometer of how good the Big East really is. Until then, we’ll have to debate how teams like WVU would fare against the schedules that schools like USC and Ohio State face.

P.S. For the frequent visitors out there, yes, I have been over this before. But if the Big East is going to be force-fed to me by the powers that be at ESPN and the like, I’m going to keep bringing this up. Thanks for reading.

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