Saturday, November 29, 2008

A clarification

The problem with publishing first drafts is that you rarely say exactly what you mean on the first try. My friend John responded to the big OU/UT post by referring, in part, to my apparent conclusion that "UT’s defeat of OU was entirely due to a single injury." That was a reasonable reading of what I wrote, but it wasn't what I believe nor what I was trying to say, and I want to correct that impression.

UT's defeat of OU was not entirely due to a single injury. That injury was neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause. It is absolutely not a given that OU would have won if Reynolds had stayed healthy. I would argue that UT needed some breaks to swing their way; but then the overwhelming number of battles between heavyweights turn, in the end, on a couple of breaks or a couple of back-breaking plays. I indulged in a bit of special pleading myself about that first half, after all (I was curious to see whether anybody would jump me for it) -- to talk about OU's offensive dominance in the first half without pointing out that 25% of OU's points came on a ridiculous, look-what-I-found pass deflection, is pretty borderline, and I can only plead that I was writing very very fast and didn't take the time to go back and revise the first draft. UT needed something to go their way -- as I put it (but not very clearly): "UT’s hope was for more special-teams heroics, or for a critical turnover, or for some huge break."

But of course they had already had some special-teams heroics and (given that Oklahoma's special teams was at that point in the schedule a well-known weakness) certainly reason to hope for more. And turnovers don't happen very often to either the UT or Oklahoma offense, but both of those defenses are pretty good at making turnovers happen. And most big games have at least one or two big breaks. It turned out that in this game the big break was the Reynolds injury; but I don't see any reason whatsoever to think that another break wouldn't have come along if Reynolds hadn't gotten hurt -- it might have favored Oklahoma, of course, but it might also have favored Texas. Texas needed a break or a big play; but with most of the second half to go it was perfectly reasonable to hope for one. Therefore the Reynolds injury was not a necessary condition of UT's winning.

And it wasn't sufficient, either. Every year there are at least fifty games in which one team gets a big break -- and doesn't do anything with it. Without Reynolds the OU defense was dramatically weakened, but it was still a bloody good defense. That didn't keep UT from saying, "Ha! Gotcha!" and absolutely blowing a nuclear bomb of an offensive onslaught right into the OU defense's teeth. Furthermore, just as big a part of the victory as the 25 points that UT scored after the injury, were the 25 points that OU did not score because the UT defense rose up in fury and, having obliterated OU's running game completely, closed Bradford and his boys down for most of the rest of the way.

See, I don't think the injury comes into the discussion at all if UT wins at Tech, and I don't even think the injury ought to come into the discussion, even now, of who should represent the Big XII South in the Big XII championship. I think the only discussion the Reynolds injury should come into, is the same discussion the Cosby injury should come into: the BCS issue of which of these three daisy-chained teams is, at this point in the season, putting the best team on the field. I know Tech beat UT head-to-head; but they beat them at home and they beat a UT team that played practically the whole game without Quan Cosby. That's not the best win of the three games; it's the worst. The best win of the series, I think, has to be OU's absolute annihilation of the full-strength Red Raiders, even though OU had home-field advantage, and I think that only because I don't think you can claim that the home field advantage in Norman -- while unquestionably worth quite a few points given that Stoops has only lost there twice in his tenure -- is an fifty-point home field advantage. The second-best win is obviously Texas's, and when you're comparing Texas's win to Oklahoma's, I think you have to look at the following factors:

  • Texas's win was on a neutral field; OU's was at home. Advantage: UT, by whatever point spread you think a typical home-field advantage would represent.
  • Texas's win was dominant in the last half, against a weakened OU defense; OU's win was equally dominant, but for the whole game and against Tech at full strength.
  • I think it would be fair to argue that Tech didn't play well against OU because they were not used to the pressure, having never played in a game with that kind of pressure and stakes; so you should discount the OU win to a certain extent because of that.

I think the overall edge goes to OU on that one, though there's plenty of subjectivity. But...I mean...if you saw all three games...I mean, really, what OU did to Tech...I don't think anybody would say OU didn't belong on the field against UT, but Tech seriously looked like a Division II team against OU.

As for the comparison of the losses:

  • OU's was on a neutral field, in a game they were winning until they lost their best defensive player; but once Reynolds were gone they were clearly outclassed.
  • UT's was away from home, in the last few seconds, in a game they had to play almost entirely without one of their best offensive players (not their best, obviously, but certainly a key part of their offense) -- at the end of a grueling four-Top-Ten stretch.

Advantage: UT.

Now to the question of improvement over the course of the year (which ought NOT be a factor in the Big XII tiebreaker but most definitely SHOULD be a factor in the BCS rankings)...see, this is where the Reynolds injury really comes into play. There's just no way to get around the fact that the OU team that UT outplayed in that second half was an OU team that was for those twenty-seven minutes dramatically weaker than they had been or would be at any other point in the season. Even one week later the Sooners had had time to move people around and rescheme and adjust. That twenty-seven minutes was OU at its worst, and OU today is a significantly better team than they were in that second half.

And that's something that can, to a certain extent, be tested empirically. UT played OSU at home in Austin, with a healthy Quan Cosby, and barely escaped. OU will tonight play OSU on the road in OSU's biggest rivalry game, still without Ryan Reynolds, but with several weeks' adjustment to Reynolds's absence under their belt. If UT and OU really are equally good teams, then you would expect OU to have a harder time beating OSU on the road as OSU's most hated rival, than you expect UT to have beating OSU at home. I say that OU was a slightly better team than UT before Reynolds went down, that they were a clearly inferior team than UT after Reynolds went down before they had time to go back to the drawing board and retool, but that having retooled around Reynolds's absence and also finally found the old DeMarco Murray, they are now once again a slightly better team than Texas. If OU had struggled against Tech, I would have given the edge to Texas; even now I can understand it if UT supporters want to point at the home field thing to try to tell themselves that Texas would beat OU again if the two were to play again, or at least that UT should get the benefit of the doubt.

But if OU beats OSU on the road, I think it gets hard to keep trying to say that UT is better now than OU is now when the only real evidence in favor of that condition is the second half of that game six weeks ago. And if OU dominates on the road an OSU team that was almost too much for UT to handle in Austin...sorry, guys, I just don't see how the debate would survive that outcome.

It's too bloody bad that the Big XII championship isn't the two best teams in the Big XII against each other, because of course the question that matters right now isn't whether OU or Texas is better than Missouri; we all know that the four best teams in the Big XII South are all better than Missouri, because Missouri is 0-2 against the Big Four. It's OU and Texas that ought to meet in the championship. Too bad it won't happen.

By the way, my own suggestion for a round-robin three-way daisy-chain tiebreaker is something along these lines: margin of victory, capped at 21 points in any one game, and adjusted up or down five points for home field advantage. (Picking five instead of three or seven lessens the chance of there still being a tie after home-field adjustments are applied.) To me the things that ought to matter are domination and home field. (Not, you will note, injuries, bad calls, or other things generally falling under the heading of "the breaks;" we are resolving a round-robin tournament here, not trying to decide which team ended the season as the best-right-now.) And, again, that's what fascinates me about the UT/OU debate this year: home field goes to UT, but domination goes to OU.

I haven't run the math; let's see what my tiebreaker would do...

OU/Texas: ten points, no home field adjustment. OU -10, UT +10.
Texas/Tech: six points, five-point adjustment. So UT -1, TT +1.
OU/Tech: forty-four points, five-point home field adjustment, capped at 21. OU +21, TT -21.

That would give you OU +11, UT +9, TT -20.

(chuckling) That's actually more interesting than I expected it to be. If I had made the home-field adjustment seven instead of five, I'd've pulled UT into a dead heat with OU, +11/+11. (I promise I didn't run those numbers until after choosing my margin, really and truly.) On the other hand, if I allow utter destruction of another team's entire will to live to count as a four-touchdown margin of victory rather than as a three-touchdown margin, UT doesn't even land within shouting distance; it's +18/+9 OU and that's it. And of course if I don't cap margin of victory at all then...ouch. What would that be, something like +34/+9? I could make home field count for two whole touchdowns and UT still wouldn't be close. (But of course I think you should cap margin of victory because once a game gets out of hand the emotional dynamic pretty much renders irrelevant whatever happens after inevitability has been recognized by both the slaughterers and the slaughtered.)

Anyway, my basic point in all of this is that I think home-field counts a lot, but also that domination counts a lot, and also that improvement over the course of a season counts a lot IF you're talking BCS implications. So, I think OU holds a slight edge over UT in the round-robin discussion because I think OU's dominance outweighs UT's neutral field, but it's a slight edge and very subjective and I wouldn't think at all badly of anybody who preferred to give the edge to UT. I think OU's edge if we bring current level of play into the discussion becomes more pronounced, but only pending the outcome of tonight's game. I think an OU loss renders both discussions moot; I think a hard-fought OU victory slightly strengthens OU's edge but not enough to make me think badly of UT partisans who are frustrated by the thought of beating OU and yet watching OU get voted ahead of them; I think an OU beatdown shifts the evidence sufficiently dramatically to make it hard for anybody (even a UT fan) who comes in ahead of Lee Corso on the rationality scale to continue to complain about the BCS ratings.

That's my read of it. Doesn't have to be other people's, naturally.

But I didn't want to allow the impression to stand that I thought Ryan Reynold's injury was the only reason UT beat OU. UT beat OU because they were a great team, and they fought until they found an opening, and when they found they opening they blew right through it and ran away with the game. It was a great UT victory in a fabulous game, and what UT did is the whole reason I love sports: in the end, life isn't fair, and winning isn't about getting the breaks because everybody gets their share of breaks both good and bad -- it's about seizing the opportunity the moment it appears. Even if OU wins the national championship this year, it will remain true that when UT had the chance, they beat us, head to head, man to man.

And I don't think there's any other team in college football that will be able to say that this year.


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