Sunday, November 9, 2008

East of the BCS's False Eden

You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect. - John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Lines like that announce and define great writers. Simple and incisive confrontations with the human condition that echo in every area of every life. Sometimes the stories and characters keep pace with this ability to focus the reader on the universal truths; all the better, but that is not the requirement.

The wisdom of Steinbeck's words is no more evident than in the world of sports. ESPN and its cavalcade of media outlets ensure that you need not face a moment of independent introspection upon your favorite ones.

Throw in Fox Sports, CBS Sportsline, Yahoo! Sports, Deadspin, our lovely little forum here, etc. and there is no shortage of people telling you how it is, when it is, and where it is (or should be). I'm not saying this is a bad thing; we participate in all of it voluntarily.

I am saying that Steinbeck's words should be heeded. The trick, as always, is to see the forest of truth through the trees of opinion (often disguised as fact).

Which brings me to college football.

Such an ability to see teams for what they really are is most important in this sport because there is no playoff. There is no normalizing event that pits the best of the strongest against each other. Instead, we are left to conjecture and compare by association, which is borderline useless.

So what if Team A from the SEC beat Team B from the Big 10? That doesn't tell us much about Team C from the SEC because the world of sports is not that of algebra. Neither football nor any arena of athletic competition follows the law of transitivity, even though it frequently pans out along those lines.

Of course, since there's no guarantee Team C and B will ever meet, the above comparison is the best we've got so it's what we go on. That's a simplification, but I think it fairly approximates the situation.

Do we know Florida isn't as good as Texas Tech just because they have a loss? After all, that loss wasn't to the Red Raiders.

Or what about an undefeated Ball State team and any other undefeated team? I mean, that quarterback looked pretty ridiculous, albeit against Northern Illinois.

College football is also the sport where such an ability to objectively, independently, and accurately assess each team is most difficult to develop and most frustrating to have once you get it (I'm guessing here because I don't pretend to have it).

Again, because of the lack of a playoff.

Each year is the same. This season, it's shaping up to be a debate between the SEC and the Big 12: the best of both conferences look like monsters, but who is the best?

Look at the schedules:
  1. Texas Tech played NOBODY outside the Big 12. They've looked awesome inside the conference, but what does that really tell us?
  2. Oklahoma beat TCU and Cincinnati, who are juggernauts compared to the powder-puffs that populate the non-conference schedules of the Sooners' competition.
  3. Texas stomped all over Arkansas, but so has its SEC opposition.
  4. Alabama roughed up what was then a ninth-ranked Clemson squad. They are currently a 4-5 Clemson squad, toiling near the cellar of the ACC.
  5. Florida battered Miami, which isn't the resume-builder it used to be.
  6. Georgia played cupcakes outside conference.
And that ignores the more relevant discussion regarding who is the best team in the country.

That discussion is more complicated because you have to consider more conferences. You need to include the Big 10 because of the newly-minted, one-loss Nittany Lions. And the Pac 10 to account for USC. And I won't forget the other undefeated non-BCS teams (Utah and Boise State).

Both debates are predicated on which conferences are the best, a fundamentally problematic question.

For instance, I saw that Texas-Texas Tech game. I'm still not sure whether the Big 12 is a conference full of good offenses and abysmal defenses or great offenses that would chew up any defense. Texas Tech looked like the latter, but not conclusively.

Meanwhile, the SEC looks like a conference full of teams that can dominate on both sides of the ball. But, again, who knows? I base that lead statement largely on the SEC's history of obliterating foes in bowl games. In previous years.

How ludicrous is that?

The cacophony of "experts" irritates the entire mess because the tide of popular opinion is even more powerful without the equalizer of a playoff.

Consider that, at this point, if the Crimson Tide get to the SEC title game, they play for the National Championship - win or lose.

They would be a one-loss SEC regular season champion. Their only loss would be in the postseason tournament's last game. That's a team that makes it in over every other team except two undefeated BCS-conference reps. Texas Tech is the only other such school.

But is that because of reality or expectation?

We don't expect a team like Ball State to be able to stun a one-loss, BCS-conference team. Especially from the mighty SEC. Forget about an undefeated one.

But what about Doug Flutie? Broadway Joe? People won't like this, but Michael Vick leading Atlanta into Lambeau Field during the January playoffs?

Doesn't football's history tell us a prolific talent can carry a team to one, single, improbable victory?

Doesn't Nate Davis have the talent and weapons to take down an Alabama, Texas Tech, Florida, or USC? Couldn't he make Ball State better for one afternoon? It's obviously unlikely, but well within the confines of reality.

And it's unlikely we'll ever get to find out.

Too bad. Because a reality breaking from expectation, in large part, defines the greatness of sports.

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