Wednesday, January 10, 2007

We were fooled

We were told prior to Monday’s BCS title game - repeatedly in fact - that one team “didn’t belong on the field”. We heard this from the vast majority of sports commentators, with Lee Corso being a rare exception. I actually heard this in person from a number of fans of THE Ohio State University.

Well, one team did not belong on the field. It just wasn’t the team most expected it to be.

Somehow, in the crazy world that is college football, you can fool most of the people most of the time.

The sports media was fooled.

The “experts” were fooled.

I was fooled.

Las Vegas was even fooled, installing the Buckeyes as a touchdown favorite.

Most of all, Ohio State fans themselves were fooled.

Now, I don’t really blame Buckeye fans for thinking their team was far better than they really were. In the group-think-echo-chamber that constitutes college football opinion, they were being told by everyone that mattered that they were the anointed ones.

The Ohio State fans I encountered in Glendale were among the most arrogant group of people I have ever seen (more on this in a later post). But then again, I don’t blame them. They remind me of a spoiled young movie star who, surrounded by fawning sycophants, is constantly told that they are better than everyone else. Pretty soon, they start to believe it themselves, and act as if they are not subject to society’s norms.

Next thing you know, they get arrested doing something incredibly stupid, and end up with their disheveled mugshots on the front of the gossip rags.

According to a report on ESPN radio this morning, Columbus, Ohio is in a state of shock, and even anger.

Well, Ohio State fans, you should be angry. All college football fans should be angry. When group-think and ill begotten opinions lead to a blowout in what was supposed to be the marquee game of the season, college football is not being well served.

The question is - how did we get so fooled?

Let us turn to the following timeline to see if we can uncover an answer.

The trouble began, not unpredictably, before the season began, when pollsters ranked Ohio State number 1. I am a firm believer that rankings should not start until at least mid-season. Making preseason predictions is folly at best. The top ten per the Coaches’ Poll to start the season were -

1. Ohio State
2. Texas
3. USC
4. Notre Dame
5. Oklahoma
6. Auburn
7. West Virginia
8. Florida
9. LSU
10. FSU

Not a terrible assessment from the way things ended up, with the exceptions perhaps of the placing of Notre Dame and Florida State. But the point here is this - before a game was played, a concept of who was best was already formed. And once the concept is so formed, it is very hard to break as the season progresses, especially in the Coaches’ Poll where busy coaches have little time for voting. In this case, take particular note of Texas being ranked second.

Ohio State opened the season with a 35-12 win over Northern Illinois, who would end the season at 7-6. If anyone was paying attention, there were early signs of Buckeye vulnerability in the win, as Northern Illinois managed 343 yards against Ohio State in the game.

The second game of the season really set the tone for the misconception that would only grow as the season pressed on. Ohio State went to Texas and won 24-7. The game was much hyped as a “One versus Two!” match up, but was it really? We know, in hindsight, that Texas was vastly overrated at the second spot, a ranking based in large part evidently on their unbeaten season the year before. However, Vince Young was gone, and Texas would go on to lose 2 more games during the season, to unranked teams Kansas State and Texas A&M.

The 24-7 score was somewhat illusory. Texas had 326 yards total offense in the game (to OSU’s 348), but had 3 more first downs at 20. They out rushed the Buckeyes by nearly 100 yards. A late score by Ohio State made the game appear worse than it really was.

Yet, the image of number one OSU having beaten “number 2” Texas placed unreasonable confidence in the minds of Buckeye fans, media types and pollsters alike, and that misconception would persist throughout the season.

OSU dispatched eventual 8-5 Cincinnati in their 3rd game, before facing once beaten and 24th ranked Penn State. The Buckeyes won 28-6, but again the final score was not really indicative of the underlying game. OSU had only 5 yards more total offense than Penn State, and 2 fewer first downs. The final two scores, both coming in the last 2:31 of the fourth quarter, were interceptions for touchdowns. In other words, until the last two minutes, this was a one possession game.

Yet, it appeared Ohio State had beaten, convincingly, another ranked team (and PSU did end up ranked 24th in the final Coaches’ Poll). Unnoticed was the fact the Lions had held OSU to 253 yards offense, with only 115 passing.

Ohio State’s next game was against then 13th ranked Iowa. If Texas was over ranked at 2nd, Iowa was out of this world ranked at 13th. Iowa ended the year at 6-7.

OSU beat Iowa 38-17. Once again, however, the stats tell a different story. Iowa gained 336 yards on Ohio State (to OSU’s 400), yet lost by 21 points. In the game, Iowa had 4 turnovers to Ohio State having none.

If 336 yards given up to a 6-7 team doesn’t sound like a lot, know this for comparison - in beating Florida, Auburn gained a total of 315 yards at home.

So, at this point in the season, Ohio State, pre-ranked number one, is 5-0, and is believed to have beaten the 2nd, 24th and 13th ranked teams in the nation. Those games, although deceivingly far apart in score, are actually very close statistically.

A misconception had been born, and then grown into quite a little toddler.

In their next three games, Ohio State dispatched Bowling Green 35-7, Michigan State 38-7, and Indiana 44-3, teams with final records of 4-8, 4-8 and 5-7, respectively. However, if one were to look, again, there were trouble signs, as the Buckeye defense gave up 339 yards to Bowling Green in the win.

At this point Ohio State is 8-0. Also, at this point in our story, I want to make it clear that I am not saying Ohio State should not have been ranked number 1, as many other worthy contenders had lost by now. A major conference team that is unbeaten deserves a number 1 rank.

What I am suggesting is that the way they were unbeaten raised, especially in retrospect, many questions. Questions that, had they been examined, might have caused some to consider how good this team really was. And if there was ever a team about whose quality was never questioned - this Buckeye team was it.

The next three teams Ohio State faced were not much different than the before, 6-7 Minnesota, 2-10 Illinois, and 4-8 Northwestern. So, in this six game stretch in mid to late season, Ohio State faced six eventual sub .500 teams with a combined record of 25-48.
(Florida, on the other hand, played a single conference opponent with a sub .500 record in 4-8 Vanderbilt).

The Minnesota and Northwestern game were blowouts. However, 2 win Illinois showed what thoughtful observers might have seen as a flashing red light. In losing to the Buckeyes 17-10, Illinois out gained OSU 233 to 224.

Much has been made of Florida’s narrow win over Vanderbilt in Nashville. Virtually nothing was made over Ohio State’s equally narrow win over Illinois, in which OSU gained only 224 yards. It didn’t fit the script at that point, especially with “THE GAME OF THE CENTURY” a single week away. The media, especially ESPN, did not want to ruin their showpiece (remember the countdown clock?).

But if Illinois could hold Ohio State to under 225 yards, what would a really good defensive team do?

If you thought you might see that defense in Michigan, well that too was an illusion. An Ohio State team that managed so few yards against Illinois toasted Michigan for 503 yards and 42 points.

We all know now that Michigan was overrated, surrendering 74 points to the opponents they faced in their last 2 games. At the time, however, that did not “fit the script”. I have never seen a regular season game as relentlessly hyped as the Ohio State - Michigan game. What was called an “instant classic” was, in reality, an exposure game if anyone had cared to examine it. With 900 yards of total offense, it was clear to see that neither team had much of a defense when it came to competent offenses. Ohio State had surrendering nearly 400 yards on defense - at home - to Michigan.

However, that was not the storyline. The storyline as it stood was that Ohio State had twice beaten the number 2 team in the nation. And in the Florida Gators, they were going to do it a third time.

It is unfortunate that the Big Ten scheduling did not allow OSU to play what I believe might be the best team in the conference - Wisconsin. Wisconsin was confined to its own script and storyline all year long - as the team who, despite only one loss, hadn’t played anyone.

If Wisconsin hadn’t “played anyone”, how exactly then had Ohio State and Michigan, in the same conference, playing essentially the same teams? Why was the same argument used against Wisconsin that was being used in favor of the other two teams?

Such is the situation where championship match-ups are decided by opinions - opinions that a self interested sports media is only too willing to mold. In this environment, who can blame Ohio State fans for being as overconfident as some young movie star?

When you look at the final NCAA strength of schedule standings, Florida is number 1. As it became abundantly obvious during the BCS title game, Florida was battle tested. This season, Florida played opponents with a combined record of 100 wins and 49 losses, or 67.1%. Ohio State played a schedule of 80-62, or 56.3%. That is 20 more wins in teams Florida faced than OSU. Including Ohio State, Florida faced 11 teams (of 14) that went to bowls. The strength of the Florida opponents was tough across the board, whereas if you remove the win totals of Michigan and Texas, Ohio State played opposition with a losing record.

Had a playoff system been in place, Ohio State could have, and would have, been exposed far before the embarrassment of this past Monday night. Ohio State was in effect over promoted for being the best team in a weak conference. What a playoff would succeed in doing is promoting match ups that don’t normally occur in the cocooned world of conference play. It would also give the type of “battle testing” Florida faced this year before a championship game was set.

Certainly, it would make for more interesting contests in what is supposed to be the year’s biggest game.

So, we were fooled, virtually all of us. And I wish I could say we won’t get fooled again.

9 comments:

jimcaserta said...

Not all of us were fooled :) I'm anxious to see how many of the players from UF's defense are on NFL rosters in 1 or 2 years.

There is a great deal of uncertainty in all of sports, that's why they play the games. At it's essence it's a bunch of hyper-competitive testosterone charged men, willing to run helmetless to get a sack. If you can reduce that to a bunch of equations, you're smarter than I am.

UF and OSU were the top 2 teams in the nation and should have delivered a close contest. I wasn't surprised at how UF played, but very surprised at OSU.

stargems said...

Initially I was fooled and anxious as hell, but after that LSU game, I was brought back to reality. If our closest opponent looked like Super Bowl heavy weights, I figured the Gators were going to put on their own showcase.

Though, even when everyone finally agreed that UF had the hardest schedule and played in the deepest conference, the pundits were still mocking about our lack of style points even after the SEC championship.

What is style if not ferocious, unrelenting and dominating defense that forces intercpetions and blocks punts and a spread offense that complements two distinct quaterbacks and employs wide receivers as running backs?

HOW many plays and formations did the Gators have to show to prove they had MORE creativity and guts than any team in any conference outside of Boise State?

I was also left with the same frustrations regarding the Wisconsin vs. Michigan/Ohio divide. Why were two teams worthy contenders while the third was a red-headed step child? More to the point, who did ANY of those teams play outside of each other?

Like every other member of the Gator Nation, I'm having a field day reading all the newly 'enlighted' analysis and reports that came out of the stunned silence in Arizona.

Mergz said...

Jim -

I have to give you credit, while you didn't exactly "call it", you were far more certain than I.

Somewhere along the line, as a Gator fan, I have become shell shocked. I always seem to expect the worse. Perhaps a dose of Meyer medicine will cure me.

And, as stargems says, LSU did give me some real hope (I mentioned them as the best team either of us played in post where I said I thought OSU would win). If we were able to hold that team to only 10 points, were we not better than we were getting credit for?

I think the SEC proved a lot this year. That will be a subject of a later post...

JM said...

Iowa played against Texas in the Alamo bowl.

Mergz said...

jm-

I stand corrected

d.tensor said...

Random comments:

- The superbowl, which is based on a playoff system, has had about a zillion lopsided games. They happen in the NCAA basketball championship also.

- Hindsight is 20/20

- The computers all said both OSU and Florida were good.

- Florida's schedule was not "tough across the board" (UCF? W. Carolina?) OSU beat 7 bowl-bound teams (out of 12); Florida beat 9 (out of 13)- not a huge difference.
Both teams have one loss to a bowl team. OSU lost to a better team than Florida did. I think.

- The Big Ten was 2-1 versus SEC in bowl games - hard to understand if the Big Ten is substantially weaker.
Wisconsin (#3 7-1 in Big Ten) beat SEC #2 Arkansas (7-1 in conference play; or 7-2 counting championship).
Penn State beat Tenn - both are 5-3 in conference play.
Both Michigan and LSU beat ND by about the same margin.

- Perhaps we are being fooled again.

The same silly people who ranked Texas and Michigan #2 are now calling Florida #1.
Yet Boise thrashed Oregon State who beat USC who dominated Arkansas...

- Not all OSU fans picked them to win.

- Arrogance may be contagious.

- Playoffs would end a lot of silly arguments (like most of my comments here - probably a good thing).

Henry Gomez said...

Arkansas was not as good as their record indicated. They were at best the 4th best team in the conference. Their final ranking indicates that.

d.tensor said...

Right, but I was trying to get away from any sort of opinion-influenced rankings, and used straight conference win-loss record rather than attempts at BCS-type evaluation of who is "best", which, as Mergz points out, may be in error. If the SEC West was in the NFL, Arkansas would be in the playoffs.

But if you do look at final rankings, Arkansas' non-conference schedule (which included two top-ten teams) was likely tougher than any other SEC team.

Third place (behind Florida and LSU) is possible; fourth is a stretch, given that they beat Auburn and had a better record; lower than fourth seems unreasonable to me. Even fourth would mean the Big Ten #3 is comparable to the SEC #4. Not bad, especially since the SEC has one more team.

Henry Gomez said...

LSU beat Arkansas. That's not subjective. Arkansas didn't have to play UF in the regular season otherwise they would have had one more loss. Auburn beat the National Champs. At the end you look at the records and Arkansas was 4th. That's not subjective.