Monday, January 14, 2008

Laying an Egg

So . . . "God, Superman, and the Buckeyes." I guess, due to the title of my blog, I am at liberty to review the second annual "Buckeye laying of an egg." Last year, following the national championship blow out I was numb. Really surprised at how poorly the Buckeyes played - note, not how well the Gators played, but how poorly the Buckeyes played. I knew Florida was a great team, but they were not that much better than Ohio State. Only the most obvious football fan would not allow at least that much. I'm convinced those two teams could have played 100 more times and it would have never been that one-sided. Maybe Florida wins all 100, Ohio St. sure did nothing to argue against that, but I can't imagine by that much.

So . . . how exciting was it for us this year to have an immediate opportunity to make up for that pitiful performance last year. The program's quality took major hits all year, but a very unique opportunity to make ammends. And . . . it was like deja vu all over again! I mean, everything down to the opening big play, and then the final wide margin of victory. Wow. By no means do I think this Ohio St. team played as poorly as did last year's team. But disappointment abounds. Normally, I would leave it at that. My team had a unique opportunity to play on a big stage in the biggest college football game of the year, the blew it, oh well, they did pretty well. [Note: I am writing this a week after it happened, so the levels of frustration and disappointment have gone down tremendously. Make no doubt about it, this was a huge disappointment.] But, it's not the end of the world. We're moving on to next year . . . however, if there is a fallacy in the current college football system, it's that we're not allowed to move on. Instead, the national media (intent on finding out who the BEST team is, must argue one). I'd be right there too if I was a USC fan or a Georgia fan. So . . . the talk goes on, and here's my much-biased opinion (and surely someone will have an opinion here too!)

The battle of conferences
I grew up respecting every college football team (except Michigan). There was no reason to care about football outside of the Midwest, and if a team was brought up, there was hardly ever any ill-feelings (outside of Miami and Florida St. in some of there more thuggish years). Then I moved to Nashville and had many friends from the Southeast and realized that they were raised to hate the Big Ten. I am totally serious here: I'd never thought much about the SEC. Not for good, or ill, but they definitely turned me into SEC-haters. They bashed teams from all over the country. They play the best football in the country.

Then, after last year's national championship, the case was settled for the national media. It's a forgone conclusion for the national media - there's the SEC, and then everyone else. Even the responses from Florida last year, and LSU this year. I've never seen such a disrespect for an entire other conference. Wow. Florida players last year lamented how they played four or five teams in the SEC better than Ohio State. This year an LSU player said Ohio State didn't fight back like an SEC team. I'm glad they are proud for the schools they play alongside and they have their back, but I think they crossed the line of disrespect (as I've found to frequently be the case in the SEC especially with their fans). There's no reason to typecast "all fans" and "all players," and I know there are always exceptions, but the cockiness of this conference is ridiculous, and, I'm convinced, misjudged.

The numbers:
As an Ohio St. fan, the numbers don't lie. I'm not here to justify anything. Ohio State stinks when it comes to their history with the SEC. From Ohio State's most honored coach, Woody Hayes, to the underachieving John Cooper, and now to the Senator Jim Tressel, they just can't figure it out. However, there's more to football than numbers. Let's look behind the numbers:
0 - 9 . . . this one is going to sit out there for a long time. Ohio State has never beat an SEC team in a bowl game. No way to sugar coat that one. There's something in the air when it comes to that. However, let's not get too carried away. Of the 9 times they've faced an SEC team, they've only been favored 3 times. In other words, even on paper, the team they were facing was supposed to win. The way the national media is talking you'd think that the top ranked Buckeyes were losing to bottom of the conference teams like Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Not the case. Often in the Big Ten, (at least since the BCS era) they've had two teams in BCS bowls meaning the rest of the conference has had to play in a bowl slot higher than they're supposed to.
7 - 2. That was the SEC's record in bowl games this year. Impressive, no one is going to knock that. None of the other conferences come close to that. But, again, there is more to football than numbers. If the SEC is "clearly the best conference in the country" as is so often touted, then I would imagine they blew everyone out, right? Not even close:
* Ole Miss (and I'm really glad for them to win this game, helping overcome one of the most blatant vices of "the best conference" - racism - make some headway) over Central Florida. Ole Miss hung on at the end of the game with a touchdown late to beat UCF by 7.
* Tennessee is clearly outplayed by Wisconsin for 3 of 4 quarters and a late poorly thrown ball leads to the game-clinching interception (bad throw, not great play).
* Alabama wins a back and forth game with Colorado that could have easily gone either way
* Auburn, in a similar games, wins a come-from-behind victory over a team that played better than they did.
* Kentucky wins a game over a Florida State team that left half their team in Florida, and they won by only a touchdown.
* Arkansas got ripped against a Missouri team that got screwed out of a bcs game. Arkansas shouldn't have been in this game so I don't count that one against them.
* Georgia beat Hawaii. Big whip.
* Then of course there was the LSU win . . . which, by the way, was in New Orleans.

Why doesn't anyone bring that up? The single most important thing in college football is personnel. That's why everyone spends so much money on recruiting. Second most? I think it's homefield advantage. Why do you think the NFL rewards teams with the best records with homefield? It's a big deal! How does this affect the bowl picture? HUGELY! Yet, it's only mentioned in passing. Consider this, of the 9 bowls SEC teams were in, they had a clear homefield advantage in 5 of them! Five! (Ole Miss played in Memphis, Florida in Orlando, LSU in New Orleans, Kentucky in Nashville, and Alabama in Shrevpoint). The other four sites were neutral at best (though Georgia had a clear advantage, more to do with opponent, Tenn in Florida, Auburn in Georgia, and Arkansas in Dallas).

My two points are this: consider the closeness of the games! 9 games, 7 wins - but only 2 decisive wins. Hardly a "best conference in the country" kind of statement. Secondly, when you consider the fact that 5 of the 9 games were played basically at home, how many of the "close" games could've gone the other way? Ask LSU that. They were so quick to jump on Ohio St. for not fighting back . . . how well did they fair on the road . . . oh yeah, they lost two games on the road to two teams that weren't as good as they are. Interesting no one mentioned that . . . "glad we were at home."

Since I'm a Big Ten guy, let's compare how these things work against the other conferences. The Big Ten was represented in 8 games. They had a poor 3 - 5 showing, but looking behind the numbers is very telling. Whereas SEC teams played 6 home games and 3 neutral sites, the Big Ten played four outright road games (four of the top five teams in the conference played essentially away games: Michigan played Florida in Orlando, Ohio State played LSU in New Orleans, Penn State played Texas A & M in San Antonio, and Illinois played USC in their home stadium).

What about the games themselves? If the Big Ten is such a crappy conference, they must have all been blowouts. [Note, I think it should be pointed out more often that the Big Ten has 11 teams as opposed to the 12 in the SEC. I'll give to the SEC that they have one more upper echelon team than the Big Ten does, but let's not get carried away.] Michigan would have beat Florida by 3 touchdowns if Mike Hart doesn't fumble twice at the goal line. Wisconsin beats UT without turning the ball over. Oklahoma State is clearly better than Indiana and I give them that game. I don't know how Georgia draws Hawaii and Illinois draws USC, switch those games and the SEC gets another loss (face it Georgia fans, you're not going out there and beating them as well as they played) and the Big Ten gets another win. That alone happening changes the numbers alot. Then, Michigan State, if they get any kind of quarterback play, defeats one of the best teams in the ACC (their qb threw 5! picks). And as significant as Ole Miss' win over UCF, Purdue beat Central Michigan (it was a close game - but they had already played in the year, come on, no repeat games in the bowls!)

To me, what all of this says is, and if we learned anything about college football this year, it's that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. And, as far as conferences go, there's not a whole lot of difference between them. Sure, there might be more fan following in alot of those SEC schools because of the lack of professional sports in the South East, but that doesn't mean it's a clear cut better conference. C'mon. If you want numbers, then you'd like to know that head to head in bowls, the Big Ten and the SEC are all even over the past 10 years. What does that say? According to the national media, nothing!

And to top off all this unbelievable bias, everyone's sure that LSU just had better players that Ohio State. Just like Florida did last year. Too much speed. Too much talent. Come on. If that comment gets made, then people have completely lost touch with reality. There are more Ohio State Buckeyes in the NFL than any other team expect Miami. More Buckeyes than any SEC school. And it's not like there's a lull coming. They keep putting them in there year after year after year. This is not about talent or ability or skill. It's about the style of play. I was really impressed with LSU's coaching and play-calling. In all honesty, that's where I thought Ohio State had the biggest advantage. (I don't think it was Les Miles as much as the rest of his staff, we'll see how he coaches when all his boys leave). But chalk one up for the coaches as much as the players - that was especially evident last year.

I'm rambling along about a lot of things here, and probably no one is still reading, but I want to say one or two more words about the current system in college football because it is relevant. (This has definitely helped my grieving process :-)

The obsession with knowing "who the best team" is, is out of control. The arguments people use in college football are ridiculous when you compare them to the NFL. Is LSU better than USC? That's the big burning question out there. Well, suppose we have an 8 team playoff, USC beats LSU and wins it all, does that settle it? Is that more satisfying that what happened this year since they actually meet head on? They still lost to Stanford. Does that mean Stanford is better than LSU and USC? That's just the stupid stuff that the current debate leads to. The strength of the BCS is that all games are important. You have to win them all (the negative side-effect is that if you lose your first or second game as a big school, you can easily lose perspective). That's why all this talk about inter-conference strength has gotten fired up. Think about it, the SEC has to be vocal that their conference it the best because they seldom go out of their conference to play any meaningful games. Instead they battle it out in their conference, scream their conference is better than everyone else's, and rest all of their prowess on that. Then they occasionally take a risk and Arkansas gets rolled by USC and Tennessee gets stomped by Cal, and I have no idea why these games don't speak louder than they do. Instead, the SEC goes off into their SEC schedules and everyone assumes they have it so much harder than everyone else. It's a farce.

I like Ohio State's philosophy. They are scheduling a home and away with big schools for the next decade. They have a big one with USC coming up the next two years, they had the two with Texas, they have two with Oklahoma, Virgina Tech, and Miami Fl. Then the other two weeks they play Ohio schools supporting football in Ohio. I think it is a good philosophy. No one's going to go out there and schedule three tough out of conference opponents. With all respect to the SEC, all conferences have a tough schedule. There are tough schools, mediocre schools, and patsies in every conference. No one walks roughshod through their conference every year. It's rare that even a Hawaii or Boise State do it. You put them through, let them play against another conference's school who has proved the same in their conference, and then have it out. One team shows they are better.

I do think a national championship has to be played on a more neutral site. It's ludicrous to think that it doesn't have an impact. I'm glad everyone was so proud of LSU for not getting down when they got behind by 10, but what happens if they get behind by 10 in Cincinnati or, for all purposes, Columbus? Instead of the crowd going silent, they go crazy? Maybe the exact same thing. There's no way to argue either way, but it is worth discussing. Ohio State, even though they were the underdog was seeded higher, and they win a date to play on a field 80 miles from the 2 seed they are playing. That should be dealt with. I would have been much more satisfied if the game had been played at one of the other sites (no argument about the affect the crowd had on us against Florida :-) I just think it is a farce that all season long everyone makes such a big deal about it, and then come bowl season, it's an aside to the discussion.

Finally, I have only heard one person mention the style of play (I think it was Michale Wilbon on PTI) and how that affects things. I really think the game plan that LSU played, and the style of play they use, would have gotten them blown out of some games in the Big Ten (I'm thinking of the Ohio State game against Michigan - cold, snowy, drizzly). I'm really going to be interested, and maybe proven totally wrong, by Rich Rodgriguez brining the spread offense to Michigan. Don't be suprised if they win all their games every year and lose a couple weather-related games late each year. Tough to win games in the Big Ten when you can't run the ball . . . run the ball . . . run the ball . . .

There's always next year . . . my hope is that Ohio State defeats USC and salvages their image and the image of the entire Big Ten . . . but remember, LSU's win over Ohio State was about LSU and Ohio State, not their respective conferences. The Big Ten represented just fine, time to give them some props.

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