January 9, 2009

A Little Bit of College Football

I don't expect to make this a regular occurrence, but I thought I would take a few moments to talk with you about sports: specifically the college football "national champion" Florida Gators. For those of you who aren't fans, the methodology used to determine the big-time college football national champion is a strange mix of about 70% figure skating judging, 25% American Idol voting, and 5% actual football results. By which I mean, because the sport doesn't feature a true playoff system, voters (mostly sports reporters and coaches) are asked to determine on a weekly basis who they think are the best teams in the country, with the end result being that the two teams receiving the most votes in the last week of the year are sent to the national championship and all the rest are sent home (no doubt to a snappy Daughtry tune). These votes are, at the end of the day, about awarding two things: style (ala figure skating) and popularity (ala American Idol). Very rarely do they appear to be reflective of which team a given voter actually thinks would win in a football contest on a neutral field.

Now, the system this year (as is the norm) has created no small number of controversies, which, quite frankly, would take me too much time to fully detail here (sorry Texas). Instead, I want to focus on just one, the national champion. You see, this year a number of "big name" schools from "big name" conferences finished their season with a 1 loss record (either 11-1 or 12-1). Florida and Oklahoma, which played for the championship last night, were among these (sorry USC, sorry Penn State, and again, sorry Texas). Now this abundance of teams with identical records would be problematic enough for a system that purports to crown a definitive champion, but the story gets much worse from here.

Why? Because the Utah Utes went undefeated. Coming from the less prestigious Mountain West conference, the Utes were allowed into the big money bowls (read: post-season games that don't really mean anything) solely by virtue of a previous year's settlement with the NCAA. And truth be told, to the outside world Utah looked mostly happy just to be invited. If everything went according to script the Mountain West champion Utes would have faced off against the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Alabama Crimson Tide and they would have gotten rolled. But everything didn't go according to the script. No, the Utes were the ones that did the rolling. They beat Alabama so definitively that the whole of the national championship was brought into question.

Why? Because Alabama had been ranked as the best team in the country going into the SEC championship against Florida. Florida's presence in the subsequent "national championship" game was essentially won by virtue of their 11 point victory over Alabama in that SEC game, which justified the voters' placing Florida in the title bout despite their one loss. If Utah goes into their bowl game against Alabama and loses like they are supposed to, no harm no foul. But Utah's beatdown of Alabama was so severe that a one loss Florida team simply can't be ranked higher that an undefeated Utah team.

You see, the most basic rule of rankings in college football is win-loss record. Undefeated "big name" conference teams are highest rated, then one loss teams, and so on. Undefeated teams from less prestigious conferences are usually ranked somewhere in the middle. But the only justification for this, really, is that the conferences serve as useful proxies for determining which teams could survive in a head to head matchup. Utah's 13-0, the argument goes, couldn't hang with Florida's 13-1 because Utah didn't play anyone. I mean, who'd they beat? San Diego State? A 3-9 University of Michigan team? Florida, on the other hand, was SEC champion, overcoming teams like LSU, Tennessee, and Alabama.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. Alabama. A common matchup. When Florida beat Alabama they were deemed worthy of the national championship. When Utah beat Alabama (worse then Florida did) they likewise should be deemed worthy of the national championship. Their respective conferences shouldn't matter because they don't matter. A team can only play the opponent in front of them. The conferences serve a useful purpose, if at all, because they allow teams without comparable opponents to be compared on a macro level. Utah can be held out of the national title picture based on their conference only in so far as their conference (by virtue of the lack of skill of Utah's opponents) would prevent them from attaining some minimum threshold of credibility for their national championship claim. With Utah's victory over Alabama that all falls away, the threshold reached. Utah is a legitimate contender and should be worthy of consideration. Since Florida and Utah never played each other we are left with only one objective criterion on which to make a decision: win-loss record. A criterion which Utah neatly wins. I mean no disrespect to the Florida Gators or their loyal fans when I say this, but Utah is the rightful national champion.

Okay, so that post went a lot longer than I had intended. Suffice it to say I will be celebrating the Utah Utes in my home as the 2008-2009 national champions and I believe that all right thinking people (tongue planted firmly in cheek) should as well.

(Full Disclosure: As a lifelong fan of the aforementioned 3-9 Michigan Wolverines, I have no dog in this hunt.)

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