All hail the Utes
If you made me turn in my final AP ballot right now, having informed me that Dubya had canceled all the remaining bowl games, my ballot would look like this:
Now, if you made me guess what my final AP ballot will look like, my guess is that it winds up like this:
1. OU / Utah...and the order will depend on how convincingly OU beats Florida. (Obviously the fact that I have OU #1 and Florida not in the top five implies that I think OU will win.)
6. A bunch of losers after that point
That's because I think Oklahoma will defeat Florida, and I think they will do so relatively convincingly. And also I think Texas will kick Ohio State into June of 2010.
Now, to explain my rankings, by explaining why Utah does or does not rank above each of the other teams in my estimation.
General principles for comparing undefeated teams to defeated teams
Note that the principles I'm about to lay out are, I believe, entirely consistent with what I've been preaching all year, and which earlier this year I was using to say that Texas should be ranked ahead of OU. Furthermore, I have pretty radically revised my evaluation of the Big XII South in the last couple of days, and that is reflected in my rankings. So don't bug me with no accusations of homeristic stacking of decks.
The burden of proof is totally on the team that got beat. That means that if anybody wants to say his team should be ranked ahead of Utah, he has to put up a serious case. If anybody from OU wants to say that OU should be ranked ahead of Texas, he has to put up a serious case. If anybody from Texas wants to say that Texas should be ranked ahead of Texas Tech, he has to put up a serious case (and to do so with arguments that can't then be turned right back against him to show that Texas should be ranked behind OU). I would accept the following three types of argument, if made with sufficient rigor and empirical evidence:
1. If you can make a serious case that the undefeated team would have had a loss if they had had to play the team the defeated team lost to, then that is, to me, a good refutation of the "you lost and we didn't so we're better" argument.
2. If you can make a serious case that the undefeated team would have lost at some point if they had had to play the same overall schedule that the defeated team did, then that is, to me, a good answer to the "you lost and we didn't so we're better" argument.
3. Because I believe very strongly that the whole point of sports is to become better, and therefore I believe that playoff-based systems (which in the end determine which team had become the best by the end of the season) capture the spirit of sport better than do round-robin tournaments (which give just as much weight to how a team starts out as they do to how a team ends), I think it is fair to argue that a team that lost early has caught and passed the undefeated team. Now you have to make a very serious case indeed, to me, if you're going to use that argument. But if you're going to insist that games in the early part of the season should count for just as much as games at then end, then I think you have no choice but to go take away the Giants' 2008 NFL championship crown and give it to the Patriots, who beat the Giants just as many times as the Giants beat them, and who had a vastly better season overall. Not willing to do that? Why, then that means that you agree, at bottom, that it's all about how good you become, not how good you start. So if the case is strong enough, I think you have to admit it into court -- but obviously it needs to be a very strong case empirically.
So those are my general principles for comparing undefeateds to defeateds. Now let's apply it team-by-team.
Why Utah rather than USC?
Utah is undefeated. USC is not. If you're going to put USC ahead of Utah then I think you have to argue that either (a) Utah would also have lost to Oregon State if the two had played, or (b) USC should get extra credit for playing in a way tougher conference than Utah, or (c) there's some reason to think that USC has improved dramatically since their loss and Utah hasn't. Um...bad news for USC.
(a) Would Utah have lost to Oregon State?...Oh, wait a second. Here's part of Oregon State's schedule:
25 Sep: beat USC 27-21.
2 Oct (yes, the very next Saturday): got beat by Utah 31-28.
I realize that OSU got USC in Corvallis and had to go to Salt Lake to play Utah; but I defy anybody to come up with a better measure of what home field advantage is worth than Jeff Sagarin -- whose regression studies consistently come in at about a field goal and who this year calculates home field as worth I think 2.91 points. So say you give USC an extra field goal on the 25th and OSU an extra field goal on the 2nd...guess what? USC still loses in Corvallis, and OSU still doesn't win in Salt Lake. Have a nice day, USC, thanks for playing.
(b) How 'bout that Pac-10? I mean, that's a real conference, not like the Mountain West. I mean, after all, in head-to-head competition...oops. Never mind. (Head-to-head Pac-10 vs. MWC this year: 2-6. Ouch.)
(c) I don't see it, frankly. USC raised their level of play a notch in the Rose Bowl, but then again, they were playing a Big Ten team, which is kind of a joke. And while it is true that Utah was playing a grossly overrated Alabama team, it is also true that they unquestionably raised their level of play as well.
Burden of proof is on the team that lost, especially when they lost to a common opponent that the other team beat. USC doesn't come close, IMHO. Goodbye, USC; Utah is better than you until you prove something head-to-head, which you won't get the opportunity to do. Next year, I would advise you to beat Oregon State. You might also consider getting out of the Pac Ten and moving to a quality football conference -- the Mountain West, for example. (Don't worry, Pac People, I'll scorch my own Big XII, too, before I'm done with this post.)
Why Utah rather than Florida?
The SEC was grossly overrated this year; I don't see any particular reason to think that it was harder to go undefeated in the SEC this year than to go undefeated in the MWC. (Yes, I know: "all those Top-30 SEC defenses" -- you mean, like Alabama's?)
In this case, we have a situation very similar to Utah/USC -- there is a common opponent who played back-to-back games against first Florida, and then Utah. In this case both Florida and Utah won -- and, to be blunt about it, Utah's win was a more dominant and impressive win. At the end of the third quarter in the SEC championship, I think most people watching thought that Florida was in trouble. After five minutes were gone in the first quarter of the Sugar Bowl, I think everybody in America knew that Alabama was in trouble; and I don't think there was any point in the whole game where people thought, "Too bad for Utah." I suppose the closest thing came at 21-17; but Utah then proceeded to march right back down and take control again.
I will allow the Florida backers to complain that Andre Smith's absence made a big difference. But how big a difference did it make? How are you going to quantify it? Besides, Smith wasn't missing from the Alabama defense, and Utah rolled up just as many points against that defense as Florida did -- and Utah stopped at 31 to a large degree by choice. Utah exploded in that first quarter with the no-huddle, then slowed things down in an obvious attempt to shorten the game. Had Utah kept the pedal to the medal and stayed in hurry-up, no-huddle mode for the whole game, it's just not reasonable to doubt that they'd've rolled up quite a few more points than they in fact did. If Smith is in the game then the Alabama offense scores more points; but then the Ute offense probably scores more points, too.
See, the difference between "Alabama didn't have Smith in the Sugar Bowl," and, "OU lost Ryan Reynolds in the Red River Shootout," is precisely quantifiability. We know that Ryan Reynolds' absence made a huge difference in the Shootout, because Reynolds didn't get hurt until the second half, giving us a control performance, as it were. It's not debatable that Reynolds' loss made a huge difference in that game, because Texas was hanging on for dear life until Reynolds went down, and from the moment Reynolds went down it was a different contest. Not "might have been different," it was different. We know how Texas would have fared against OU-with-Reynolds, because Texas actually played a half against Reynolds (and were in the game at half 28-20 solely because a return for touchdown had made up for some of the deficiencies of their rather overmatched offense, in much the same way that Alabama had hope at the half of the Sugar Bowl only because the deficit was 21-10 instead of 21-3 -- thanks to a return for touchdown that helped make up for their outright hapless offense). The before-and-after-Reynolds Shootout results are as close to a controlled experiment as you are ever likely to get in football, and if you can't admit that the Reynolds injury radically altered the whole character of the Shootout then you are simply impervious to empirical evidence (and therefore of no interest to me as a football discussion partner).
But there is no such control available for Smith. Utah was dominant throughout and changed their offensive strategy quite obviously depending upon whether they felt comfortable with their lead and wanted to milk the clock, or whether they were feeling urgency to score. The Utah offense was much better than the 'Bama defense; the Utah defense was much better than the Smith-less 'Bama offense. Maybe Smith makes the 'Bama offense close to an even match for the Ute defense -- but then, is there any reason to think that Utah wouldn't have scored 50 points against 'Bama if they had needed to? I don't see it, myself -- and the only thing Smith could possibly have accomplished, given that he doesn't play defense, would have been to make sure Utah's offense spent more of the game in urgency-to-score mode rather than take-our-time-and-kill-clock mode.
At the very least, Utah showed in the Sugar Bowl that they were just as capable of beating up on Alabama as Florida was. And if you take Alabama off the slate, tell me whom else Florida beat this year who was as good as TCU? Actually, never mind taking Alabama off the slate, because TCU would IMHO also whoop Alabama -- Alabama just isn't that good a team, and just didn't really accomplish very much this year once you look at who it was that they went undefeated against. Whom did Florida beat this year that you seriously believe, at this point, would beat TCU on a neutral field?
That's what I thought.
So, to me, the best Florida can claim is, "Hey, the Alabama games didn't prove anything." But the trouble with that is that Florida needs the Alabama games to prove something -- because Florida lost at home this year to a team that four other teams beat, and thus the burden of proof is on Florida. Florida needs to be able to say, "We're a different team now than we were then" (and they could try to say that Tebow and the Gators had a wakeup call against Ole Miss and actually started playing like they were capable of) -- but it doesn't do any good to say that unless you can also say, "And the different team that we now are is clearly better than you." Well, Florida, I saw you play Alabama, and I saw Utah play Alabama.
And you didn't make your case.
Why Utah rather than Texas?
Because of what happened in the Holiday and Cotton Bowls. I thought Oklahoma State and Texas Tech would both dominate their bowls. Instead they both lost outright. And that means that I had been up until now overestimating the quality of Texas's body of work: Oklahoma State came this close to beating Texas in Austin, and of course Tech did beat Texas in Lubbock -- in a game that, had Texas won, you would have had to feel Texas had risen up and stolen in the last quarter after being dominated for most of the game. Now, I would excuse Texas to a certain degree for that loss because it was in Lubbock (add a field goal to offset home field and that gets Texas closer though still not there) and because they lost Cosby very early in that game (which I think would have made the rest of the difference). But if you're going to give Texas a mulligan for losing because they didn't have Cosby, then you also have to take away Texas's signature win in the Shootout, because OU didn't have Reynolds for the second half. And even more importantly...it's kinda hard not to suspect that Texas might have just a spot of trouble with Oregon, and for that matter with Ole Miss. But Oregon lost to three other teams (including Boise State) and Ole Miss lost to four teams -- though not to Texas Tech.
Texas gets credit for beating OU on a neutral field. But I saw both the first and second halves of that game, and Texas doesn't get as much credit for that win as they think they do, because I really don't see how Texas can claim that they would have won that game if OU hadn't lost Reynolds. I mean, it's certainly possible that they would have found a way to win. But the evidence says that they were much more likely to have walked away with a loss. And then they're a two-loss team and not even in the discussion. So, they get credit for seizing their opportunity and beating a great Oklahoma team, and that gets them into the discussion; but they only get credit for beating that team at its least great moment of the whole year. There's no compelling reason to think that Texas would have beaten the early-season Oklahoma team without the Reynolds injury, much less to think that Texas would beat the team that Oklahoma has become now that the Reynolds injury has been schemed around and Alex English is back. And now that Tech and OSU and Missouri have all been exposed as overrated, that fearsome four-game OU-Mizzo-OSU-Tech stretch just doesn't impress nearly as much as it did a week ago. The bowl season has made Texas's loss seem worse and its wins seem not nearly as good.
Utah deserves it more than Texas does at this point. It's that simple.
Why Utah rather than Oklahoma?
For all the reasons I just gave with respect to Texas, basically -- the woeful performances of Tech and Oke State have in my mind pretty seriously devalued OU's body of work.
Now, I do think that Oklahoma has one thing in its favor that none of Utah's other challengers can match: in the case of Oklahoma, there's plenty of reason to think that Oklahoma really has improved dramatically in the months since the Shootout, because the injury impact is obvious. But you know what? Oklahoma lost. And in the OU/Texas debate, Texas is handicapped by the fact that while it is true that they beat OU head-to-head, it is also true that they got beat by Tech, and that Tech got absolutely run off the field by the Sooners. But Utah hasn't lost. There's no Tech that OU can point to when the debate is between Utah and OU.
So at this point, based on Utah's performance in the Sugar Bowl and the Big XII's performances in the Cotton and Holiday Bowls, Utah has moved ahead of OU for me. I'm just not as confident as I was a week ago that OU's dominance during the last half of the season is an artifact of true greatness rather than an artifact of weakness in conference opponents. Utah is undefeated; Oklahoma is not. The burden of proof is on Oklahoma -- and, thanks to those three bowl results, I say Oklahoma has not yet proved what it has to prove.
But there are two bowls left that could change my mind.
If Texas has a tough time with Ohio State, then I move USC up ahead of Texas, and in the process I emphatically move the Pac-Ten up ahead of the Big XII. But that pushes Utah even further ahead of Oklahoma than I already have them, and puts even more weight on the BCS Championship game. If, on the other hand, Texas dominates Ohio State, then I leave Texas ahead of USC and my Utah/OU comparison holds steady at the status quo.
And that brings us to OU/Florida. Here are the possible results and how they would affect my vote.
1. Florida wins. In that case, Utah is my national champion; even a Florida domination of OU would just mean, to me, that the Big XII was indeed grossly overrated. If the comparison is between Florida and Utah, then for me, Alabama is where you go for the comparison, and it's already settled. There is no way I will move Florida ahead of Utah. The question for me wouldn't be, "How high does Florida go?" -- if Florida wins on the 8th, then my top two are Utah and Florida in that order. I mean, I'll believe that Florida and Utah would be very evenly matched, because I think that's already been established; but I'll believe that Utah gets the ring because the burden of proof is on Florida, as explained above. So the only question in this scenario, for me, would be, "How far does OU fall, and how far down do they drag Texas with them?"
2. Oklahoma wins in a dogfight, leaving me convinced that if OU played Florida ten times it would be a crapshoot as to which of the two teams, if either, would win six games of the ten. In that case, I would conclude that at the top of the football world there were three more or less equally competitive teams -- four, if Texas were to win convincingly in the Fiesta -- and that none of the defeateds had met the burden of proof. In that case, my top two would be Utah and OU.
3. Oklahoma wins convincingly but doesn't slaughter them. In that case I agonize over which team gets my #1.
4. Oklahoma dominates Florida. In that case, because I think Alabama shows us that Utah is slightly better than Florida but not dominatingly so, and because I think there is good reason to think that the team Oklahoma is dramatically and demonstrably better than the team they were able to field in the second half of the Shootout, I go ahead and move OU back ahead of Utah -- and curse the lack of a playoff.
So where's the cutoff point, the margin of victory at which "convincing" changes to "dominating"? Well, that kind of depends on how Texas does against Ohio State. If Texas impresses in the Fiesta, then a two-possession (i.e., 9-point) victory for OU would probably be enough for me, and two touchdowns or more would definitely do the trick. If Texas loses to Ohio State, then I would demand at least two touchdowns and probably wouldn't begin to be comfortable with anything less than a three-touchdown blowout.
But I'll tell you this: either OU dominates Florida and my top two are OU and Utah in that order, or else Utah is my national champion. What Utah has done this year...I can't say enough about 'em. That is a championship team. If they wind up #2 in the Peril poll it will only be because Oklahoma convinces me, in the BCS title game, that they have become, by this point in the season, one of the all-time great teams.
My money? Well, to be honest, it's pretty much on Utah at this point. Which is why right now I have Utah #1.