Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Thousandth Post: On the great Longhorn/Sooner debate of 2008

I wrote this post up at home, came into my favorite coffee shop to post it -- and discovered that this will be my thousandth post on the Redneck Peril blog. So, congratulations to me...for having shot my mouth off an inordinate number of times.

So. The great UT / OU debate – or, as my old friend Brian Kengle would describe it, the debate between the T-sippers and Dyslexic U. (As far as Brian’s concerned, anybody who names his university “The University of Oklahoma” and then goes around chanting, “OU! OU! OU!” is, shall we say, “special.”) I’ve decided to weigh in here on the blog, for two reasons:

1. My opinion was solicited by John Gallop, for whose own opinion I have much respect, and who is a Texas grad clearly trying to be fair about it all.

2. I read a short bit from Matt Zemek, whose opinion I ordinarily respect but who I thought was not at all at his best here (Thought #4 in the Five Thoughts).

3. I haven’t blogged in a long time because of the confluence of go-live on my year-long project at work, the finalization of the divorce and the immediate bureaucratic fallout thereof, and moving out of the two-bedroom apartment into the Liong’s just-vacated three-bedroom house, which by virtue of (a) a lack of interest in having a separate office or dining room and (b) creatively hung bedsheets, the Troika and I have transformed into a five-bedroom house – thus allowing each of the four kids who live with me, to have his own room. Going live, finalizing the seemingly interminable divorce process, moving…these are all good things.

But they don’t leave much time for blogging.

Here’s the deal, though: the UT / OU debate is one of those things that fascinates me because it’s so patently clear that all you would have to do to get each side to admit the superiority of the other side’s arguments…would be to reverse the positions of the two teams. If UT had lost at the State Fair in the aftermath of a devastating injury, then proceeded to obliterate by six touchdowns a team that had just gotten through beating Oklahoma, you wouldn’t hear anything about “head-to-head” coming out of Austin – and all you’d see in Norman would be an entire city-full of the crimson-clad holding their hands over their ears and chanting continuously, “45-35! 45-35! 45-35!”

And in this case, I know perfectly well I’m one of the partisans. So it’s an interesting challenge to try to step back and ask myself, “So what should the rules actually be? If this were a raging debate between Florida and Alabama, whose side would I be on?”

Of course, as soon as I do that, I get to the one thing that is absolutely clear and utterly beyond debate: anybody who has, at any point since Florida stunk up its own homefield against the fearsome forces of [unsuccessfully attempting to choke back gales of laughter] Ol’ Miss, even considered for a moment putting Florida ahead of either Oklahoma or Texas on his ballot, is a person whose ballot should be taken away forthwith and given to somebody able to vote with more intelligence and rationality – say, for example, any random 80-year-old Democrat in Palm Beach County. This is not open for discussion.

Oklahoma vs. Texas is, however, well worth the discussing, and Zemek tries his hand at it with a little piece entitled, “All together now ... 45-35 ... 45-35 ... 45-35.” Now anytime you see somebody who is actually repeating his favorite argument before he can even finish a story title, you know you have somebody who is pretty low on arguments; so that wasn’t a very good sign. But my real problem lies with (a) his main philosophical assertion, which is in the last analysis an assertion that I don’t believe he himself actually believes, and (b) his primary empirical assertion, which I don’t think holds water.

His main philosophical assertion is this:

“But when we get to the end of the season, and inter-conference comparisons need to be made, limits must be applied to the leapfrogging….Yes, OU is hotter and more imposing right now. In the first half of a football season, that kind of detail matters. But at the end of a season--and OU is just one game away from completing its 12-game slate; ditto for Texas--one has to include early-season evidence along with late-season facts and figures.”

Now I might be inclined to grant Zemek his argument, which is (if he is speaking English) that you ought to care just as much about how good a team was in September as you care about how good they are in November…except for one thing: Zemek is a raging proponent of a playoff system. And any playoff scheme is designed to do three things:

1. It settles things “on the field.” UT fans would love this part if it weren’t for the fact that 39-33 and 65-21 happened “on the field” just as surely as did 45-35. I love this part, too, even though 45-35 happened on the field – and if UT hadn’t lost to Tech you’d hear nothing from me about OU’s improvement since the Texas game, or about Ryan Reynolds’s injury, or about margin of victory, because 45-35 happened on the field (and under this hypothesis, 39-33 wouldn’t have).

2. It ramps up game-day pressure and thus gives extra weight to a team’s ability to function under extreme stress and miminal margin of error – that is, it shifts the weight of valuation toward character rather than talent. I love this part because I care way more about character than talent.

3. But most importantly (and damagingly) for Zemek’s point, any playoff system grossly overvalues how good a team is at the end of the year, to the point where pretty much nothing matters once you’re in the playoffs other than who is hot right now. Zemek’s argument is a first-class argument…for people, that is, who are prepared seriously to argue that the Patriots ought to be declared the 2008 NFL champions rather than the Giants. As far as I’m concerned, I like this part, too, because (perhaps due to a lifetime spent under the Christian ethical system) I find redemption and resurrection deeply appealing at a fundamental emotional level: I love to see people who have failed pick themselves up and find redemption even more than I like to see people go without ever failing in the first place. This is hardly logical…but it apparently puts me in good company, as we have Our Lord’s word for it that there is more joy in heaven over the sinners who repent than over those who never mess up to begin with.

But more to the present point, Zemek is constantly going on about how much better we’d be under a playoff system, and this is deeply damaging to Zemek’s present attempt to insist that all parts of a season should be valued equally when you’re voting in a poll that specifically asks you who is the best team in America now -- which is what the polls ask. They do not ask, “Which team has had the best season?” They ask, “Who is the best team now?”

You see, any system that defines its champion through a playoff system, is a system designed disproportionately to reward teams that improve during the year. If you want to weight the early part of the year equally with the last part, then there’s a simple way to do that. It’s called a round-robin tournament. And you know what? Nobody likes ‘em. The major leagues spend 162 round-robin games establishing which teams are the best…and then crown their champions by one five-game series and two seven-game series, in which eleven October victories are allowed to outweigh 120 regular-season victories, and a team can win the championship even though it couldn’t win its own division in the regular season. The NFL goes though the contortions of its wild-card process, which makes it perfectly possible for an initially mediocre 10-6 team, fifth-seeded in its own conference and second in its own division, to get into the title game against an 18-0 juggernaut…and simply by finding a way to win that one game, to be declared champion. There is no doubt that the Giants were totally outclassed by the Patriots at the beginning of the year. But there is no doubt that the Giants improved themselves enormously over the course of the year and all but entirely closed the gap, getting close enough to put themselves in position to pull off the upset. And nobody – except the Patriots – objects to the fact that coming into Super Bowl XLII, it mattered much more that the Giants had become a great team by playoff time than that the Patriots had been a great team from the opening whistle. If you don’t want November and December to count more than September, then you can’t be a proponent of a playoff system.

But having given Zemek a hard time, I will now give him credit for using an argument that would be valid if he were using it in slightly different circumstances, and I will excuse his confusion on the grounds that the confusion is the Big XII’s fault. For there are actually two questions at stake here:

1. Which team should be declared Big XII South champion?

2. Which team should be ranked higher in the BCS?

I think those are not just two different questions; I think they are two different types of question. And in particular I think that if Zemek were trying to answer the first question rather than the second, his philosophical assertion would be entirely valid. His mistake is in apply the philosophy appropriate to the first question, to the second question, where it isn’t appropriate.

See, the Big XII South champion is, in actual fact, supposed to be settled by a round-robin tournament. The games that take place in September ought to carry just as much weight as the games that take place in November; that’s what a round-robin tournament is supposed to accomplish. Now of course the problem with round-robins is that, unless you play lots and lots and lots of games, it tends to produce ties; and therefore you have to have a tie-breaking scheme. But any tie-breaking scheme meant to resolve a round-robin tie, must be a scheme that grants equal weight to all parts of the season.

It is, therefore, in my mind a disgrace that the Big XII resolves its round-robin ties by appeal to a ranking scheme that is (a) not at all designed for that purpose and (b) flagrantly over-weighted, on purpose, to end-of-season performance.

In short, I think you ought to apply one set of standards if you’re trying to decide who should be Big XII South champion, and a different set if you’re trying to rank teams for the BCS; and I think the Big XII discraces itself by confusing the two. And I think what you see with Zemek’s piece is a guy who has gotten philosophically confused precisely because the Big XII has introduced philosophical confusion.

So on Zemeke’s philosophical assertion, I wind up saying, “You’re right if we’re talking about who should be Big XII South champion; you’re wrong if we’re talking about who should rank higher in the BCS standings; and it’s a travesty that the Big XII forces us to talk about both at once.”

That brings us to Zemek’s main empirical assertion, namely that the Longhorns’ “body of work” is more impressive than Oklahoma’s, which I think is wrong, but certainly debatable. After all, the Longhorns’ body of work is bloody impressive – certainly more impressive than, ahem, Florida’s or USC’s, or even (in my opinion) Alabama’s. I mean, I would rank Alabama higher on my BCS ballot because they haven’t lost yet, but on a neutral field I’d put my money on Texas to kick Alabama’s shiny red butt. So let’s look at that body of work.

First of all, they beat Oklahoma on a neutral field. I don’t think they would be able to do that on a consistent basis, but then nobody else has even challenged the Sooners this year. Furthermore, they beat Missouri, whom Oklahoma would I think also beat, but whom Oklahoma has not played and therefore has not beaten. True, Oklahoma slaughtered TCU and Cincinatti, but I think the Missouri win by itself is as impressive as Oklahoma’s TCU and Cincinatti wins put together. Then, too, Texas beat OSU, albeit with a great deal of difficulty even though they had home-field advantage; and they came within one play of beating Tech on the road. Remember this: Texas’s only loss came on the road, in the closing seconds, at the end of one of the most brutal stretches of schedule in living memory.

If UT had beaten Tech, I would absolutely say that UT should be ranked ahead of OU. And going into the Tech game, I still said that UT should be ranked ahead of OU. In fact, I told my UT buddy Scott Finke that even if OU were to beat Tech, UT should get the nod over OU and Tech unless OU delivered a serious beatdown. The number I quoted to Scott before the game was four touchdowns.

For you see, I think home-field advantage matters a lot in college football. UT beat OU on a neutral site, and by the end of that game they were clearly the best team on the field (the fact that they were clearly not the best team on the field until Ryan Reynolds went down doesn’t change the fact that UT won the game, injuries being a part of football). UT lost to Tech by a hair’s breadth in Lubbock, at the end of a four-game stretch more brutal than any I ever remember seeing a team face (though pretty much everybody in the Big XII South had a hellacious schedule to deal with). If OU were to beat Tech in Norman but struggle to do it, then, I considered going into last Saturday, you would be looking at one team that had won at a neutral site and lost on the road (UT), one that had won at home and lost on the road (Tech), and one that had won at home and lost at a neutral site (OU). To me, that would have put the ranking as UT – Tech – OU, unless OU went out and obliterated Tech. So I told Finke, “If OU beats Tech, but not by much, then it’s gotta be UT. If OU slaughters Tech by four touchdowns, I think you have to go with OU,” -- because a thorough beatdown, even at home, would to my mind outweigh twenty-seven minutes even on a neutral site.

“Twenty-seven minutes?” I hear you cry. “What do you mean, twenty-seven minutes?”

Well, here’s the thing. The trouble with UT’s chanting interminably, “45-35, 45-35, 45-35,” is that UT is trying to say that that one Saturday in Dallas should count more than everything else combined…that what happened in Lubbock shouldn’t matter, that what happened last week in Norman shouldn’t matter, that the question of which team has improved more since that weekend shouldn’t matter, that in fact nothing should matter except that Saturday. And that would to me be a pretty hard sell even if UT had outplayed OU for sixty minutes in Dallas.

But it’s even worse than appealing to sixty minutes – if you’re a UT fan trying to make the Red River result count more than anything else, then you’re really trying to say that twenty-seven minutes should decide it all. For until, with 11:40 to go in the third quarter, Oklahoma’s defense was devastated by the loss of the most important player on the roster after Sam Bradford, Texas had been, barely but definitely, outplayed.

Here is how Colt McCoy and his boys performed in the Shootout before Reynolds was hurt, while at the same time Bradford & Company were engaged in racking up four touchdowns in seven possessions:

Field goal
Field goal

There was a kickoff return for a touchdown mixed in there, as well, to keep the Longhorns within shouting distance at 28-20, but there was little question that Colt McCoy and the Texas offense simply weren’t going to be able to keep up with Bradford and the Sooners unless some dramatic break fell their way. At that point the OU offense had scored 28 points on 7 possessions and the UT offense had scored 13 on 6 – which is to say, 4 points per possession to 2 1/6 points per possession. There was simply no reason to think that OU’s offense wouldn’t continue to outscore UT’s offense; UT’s hope was for more special-teams heroics, or for a critical turnover, or for some huge break.

And then, with 11:40 to play in the third quarter, they got the break of the season. Middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds -- the heart and soul of the OU defense, by far OU’s best defensive player, a player who the previous week had become the first defensive player in the history of Bob Stoops’s program to grade out perfectly for a full game – middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds tore his ACL.

A team as deep as Oklahoma can retool a defense to adjust for the loss of its best player, given time – as they have over the weeks since the Texas loss, especially with the emergence since the Texas game of freshman Travis Lewis. Indeed, Oklahoma manhandled the same Tech offense that scored 39 points against Texas not only without Reynolds, but without star defensive end Auston English as well. In fact, if a team as deep as Oklahoma is in the middle of a game against all but the very top-level competition, it can generally patch together something good enough to hang on through the game.

But Texas is one of the two or three best teams in the country, a genuinely great team, even if you agree with me that it is by a whisker not quite the best team in the Big XII. As good as Oklahoma is, there was no margin for error, any more than Texas would have had margin for error against Oklahoma had Texas lost its best defensive player. The problem against playing against great teams is that if they get an opening, then they explode on you before you can figure out how to patch it. On that day the hole opened up in the middle of the OU defense, and Texas seized its opportunity and seized the day -- and I give them full credit for it. How cold-bloodedly, in fact, did UT go for the jugular? Try this, for the four possessions following Reynolds’s injury:

Field goal
Touchdown w/2-pt conversion

By the time UT got the ball back for its final possession, it had a ten-point lead and had only to grind the clock; and thus in the last minute or so OU finally got a meaningless stop: at last, against a UT offense that had deep-sixed the passing part of its playbook, the crippled and confused and demoralized Oklahoma defense forced a punt.

Five possessions, even counting the clock-killing one. Twenty-five points. Which is to say, 5 points per possession. Once Reynolds went down, the OU defense literally couldn’t stop Texas. During that quarter and a half, Texas outscored OU 25-7.

Now I don’t for a moment begrudge Texas the victory. Texas beat OU fair and square, on a neutral field, and while the Reynolds-less OU defense was failing to stop UT, let us not forget that the full-strength OU offense was mostly failing to score on the newly energized UT defenders. UT won that game, won it outright and going away, and my hat’s off to them. But what (slightly) annoys and (hugely) amuses me is the desperation with which the UT supporters in the media, in the best tradition of special pleading, cling, like Zemek, to that 45-35 score – for when Zemek puts his hands over his ears and chants, “45-35, 45-35, 45-35,” what he really means is, “25-7, 25-7, 25-7.” He means, in fact, that twenty-six minutes and forty seconds of football should count more than all the rest of the year put together.

And you know what? If Texas had found a way to beat Tech, I’d’ve agreed with him. Like I told Finke, the quality of the Texas win, and the fight that Texas put up and the adversity they fought through before finally succumbing in Lubbock, and the allowance you have to make for home field advantage in college football – all of those, to my mind, weighed heavily in UT’s favor. And even though I think that during those twenty-seven minutes UT had OU at its worst, and was playing at its best, and even though I think OU has improved dramatically since those twenty-seven minutes and UT doesn’t seem to have, and even though I think that if OU and Texas were playing a rematch this weekend I’d give OU a clear edge…still, the comparative quality of the Texas and OU wins and losses, I thought, had been to that point unmistakably in Texas’s favor. And it was going to take four touchdowns to change my mind.

Well, it wasn’t four touchdowns. It was six -- and that’s with the OU starters gone after the first couple of minutes of the fourth quarter, and with Tech’s scoring a meaningless touchdown in the closing seconds. Had Stoops kept his foot on the gas pedal you’re looking at seven or even eight touchdowns…Gawd Almighty.

See, if you’re a UT fan, you just can’t insist that Texas should stay permanently ranked ahead of OU, with no attention paid to the possibility that OU has improved significantly and UT has not, on the “head-to-head” basis, unless you’re willing to say that Tech’s more recent win should keep Tech, in its turn, ranked permanently ahead of UT. And you’ll find a snowball in hell before you’ll find a UT grad who thinks Tech ought still to be ranked ahead of UT. Now, if UT gets to leap past the team that beat them head-to-head on the basis of last Saturday’s game, why doesn’t OU get to leap past Texas on the basis of that very same game? How do you get to leapfrog the team that beat you, while still insisting that you are immune to being leapfrogged in your own turn, by the very team that just absolutely annihilated the same team that just a couple of weeks ago beat you fair and square, in the very game by which you justify your own leapfrogging? You can try, if you like, to say that you lost on the road and OU won at home – but unless you are willing to try to say, with a straight face, that home field advantage is worth five touchdowns, that doesn’t wash. Or would you like to try to convince a neutral observer (not an OU fan like my admittedly biased self, but a genuinely neutral observer) that if Tech had come to Austin this year, you would have spanked them by forty points?

I didn’t think so.

But it gets even worse for Texas, in two ways.

1. At this point, UT advocates can make no case that UT has gotten significantly better since the last twenty-seven minutes of the OU game; but there is no denying that OU has now had the chance to adjust its defense to compensate for Reynolds’s loss, and also that DeMarco Murray is a different runner now than the tentative, still-mentally-knee-injured runner that he was in the first five games of the season. The OU team that will step on the field next Saturday, and that would step on the field to play Texas if there were to be a rematch, is a dramatically better team on both sides of the ball than the team UT played in the second half of the Red River shootout. Is UT a better team now than they were then? Or was that twenty-seven minutes the finest stretch of football that UT has played or will play this year, coinciding with OU at this year’s worst? I think it would be at least as easy to make the latter case as the former. In a rematch, I think UT bettors would be very, very tempted to put a lot of money on the Vegas underdog, because I think Vegas would give you the Longhorns plus at least a field goal.

2. In order to keep any audience at all for its special pleading, UT has to insist that the neutral field angle be played up as far as possible. But the season isn’t over, and UT faces a very serious problem next week. UT got OSU at home, and they were lucky to escape with a four-point win. (Shortly thereafter, by the way, Tech had their own chance at OSU at home -- and they rang up 56 points in a five-touchdown blowout.) OU, by contrast, has to go to Stillwater this year, to play in the Bedlam game that is the worst possible scenario for a team trying to avoid an upset: OSU is not OU’s biggest rival, but OU is OSU’s most hated rival, and OU has to play them on the road.

I think Bedlam is going to be hard slogging for OU this year, and you could very well see an upset, in which case I would join the UT supporters and say forcefully that UT deserved to be the Big XII representative in the BCS championship. But if OU beats OSU on the road, after all the trouble Texas had with OSU in Austin…well, it just continues the theme; the weight of the evidence except for that twenty-seven minutes, points in OU’s favor in my opinion, and this would continue that trend. That twenty-seven minutes ought to weigh heavily – but UT fans want it to outweigh all other evidence combined.

And yet…UT is a genuinely great team, and they won; they not only competed with OU (which nobody else has done), they beat ‘em. I think that twenty-seven minutes should weigh heavily; and I think you should give UT extra credit for the neutral field, and you should cut ‘em lots of slack for a last-second on-the-road loss against their fourth consecutive Top Ten opponent…so I can understand it if somebody thinks UT should still be ahead of OU today, and I can even understand it (though I’ll disagree with it) if somebody continues to maintain that even if OU goes into Stillwater and comes out with a win.

But what happens if, for the second week in a row, it isn’t just a win? What happens if OU dominates OSU, in OSU’s house, in a textbook rivalry trap game, by three or four touchdowns? At that point, I think it would simply stop being intellectually respectable for UT fans to continue to cling to the Red River Rivalry’s second half as an untrumpable get-into-the-BCS-free card. Head-to-head is not the deciding factor here, not for a team that wants (like UT wants) to be ranked ahead of the team that three weeks ago beat ‘em. Who is the better team now, OU or UT? That is the question. Well, UT needed Reynolds injury to beat OU; they needed home-field advantage to escape OSU by 4, and in the end they couldn’t get past Tech in Lubbock, period. There’s no particular reason to think they’re a better team now than they were in the Red River Shootout. Meanwhile, on the OU side, during that twenty-seven-minute stretch Texas was clearly, at that time and place, the superior team. But since then OU has improved dramatically; it just got through putting onto the very team that had beaten Texas two weeks earlier and clobbered OSU the week before, the second-worse butt-kicking any No. 2 team has ever received. If OU bitch-slaps OSU clear into January come Saturday, I just don’t see how UT fans could continue to claim, with a straight face, that UT is a better team now than OU has become.

I don’t think that should matter, if you’re deciding who wins the Big XII South. But I think it certainly ought to matter if you’re filling out a BCS ballot. What a crying shame it is that you can’t separate the two.

But for the record: I think OSU is more likely to upset OU, than OU is likely to deliver a second consecutive for-the-ages butt-kicking. If OU loses, then my UT buddies and I will be unanimous in our votes for UT. If OU barely escapes, then I’ll think OU is better but I won’t be annoyed by the inevitable rejoinder, “45-35.” and thus we will agree to disagree.

If it’s four touchdowns?

Well, at least Missouri won’t have to worry about the ignominy of losing to the same team twice in one year. And at least, after the Big XII championship, the debate will be largely over…for if OU loses to Missouri, Texas will go to the national championship. But if OU beats Missouri, then so much for the body-of-work argument that Texas has beaten Missouri and OU hasn’t.

But whichever Big XII South team gets into the national championship game against the S.E.C. champion…God help either Florida or Alabama when they have to play either Oklahoma or Texas, is what I say.

And on that point, I suspect John and Scott and I can all agree.

P.S.: An update, in which I say what I think would be the fairest outcome:

I am going to pull for Baylor to beat Tech. The perfect outcome of this weekend, I believe, would be for Oklahoma to be ranked higher than Texas in the BCS -- because I think Oklahoma is at this point a better team -- but for Texas to be declared the Big XII South champion -- because I don't believe a round-robin tournament should be tie-broken though a system that disproportionately weights one part of the season more heavily than another.

I say this knowing perfectly well that if UT gets the chance to play in the conference championship, and beats Missouri, that they will jump back ahead of OU in the BCS rankings and will go to the national championship instead of OU, in which case I will wish them a cheerful God-speed-y'all. But I just hate the thought of the Big XII South's tie being broken by BCS rankings, and this is the best way to avoid that.

I'd just have to cheer for Missouri in the Big XII championship, that's all. ;-)


At 9:41 PM, Blogger needtowakeup said...

Great job analyzing the original game and those since the 45-35. Too bad the National Sports writers don't read your blog. Watching the Sooners since the UT game shows that they have rebuilt closer to the first two quarters of the UT game, maybe even better in the rushing department and substantially improved on defense replacing the vacuum left by Reynolds injury. If OU beats OSU decisively, like TT then everyone except UT fans will be convinced. I admit that I am nervous about the OSU game, because historically it is one that the best team does not always win (prior years at UT and TAM show they have the same issue there - but certainly not tonight) I might add that TAM is certainly not the quality of OSU this year. I will keep my fingers crossed and my blood pressure monitored closely during the game. I might even pray that the best team would win (in which case I would not cross my fingers).
Go Sooners play to your potential! (hgw-n-McA)


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