Tuesday, October 21

So What Now?

I'm dreading this posting. A lot has changed in just a few weeks. I'm afraid of what I will convince myself. I'm still having trouble getting over the Toledo loss. While most of the Michigan blogosphere has rightly been defensive of the team, given the bare cupboard and new system, I don't know what to believe. Losing to "little brother" did little to help matters.

When people, usually the most fair-weather of Michigan fans, would complain over the years that "Lloyd Carr needs to go," I would always respond with the same question: "Who do you want to hire, then?" None of these folks ever gave me a halfway decent answer to that question. One said "Marty Schottenheimer." Part of the problem was that they never appreciated Carr, which to me, meant they never appreciated Michigan. We may not have had the flashiness of the mid-90s Florida Gators, but every year, we had the chance for greatness and at worst found ourselves in the Alamo Bowl. Even when Michigan was "terrible," Michigan was always good. And I think it's especially clear now how many people took that for granted.

For the last ten years, friends and I have participated in a weekly college pick 'em contest. Put simply, you pick the winning team for each game among the AP Top 25. In ten years, I have never once picked against Michigan, no matter how grim a game may have looked. There was no point in playing the game if I couldn't pick my team. But Penn State was an entirely different scenario. The spread was 23.5, and I was certain it was low. While I didn't hesitate to pick Michigan, cross my fingers, and hope for the best, others changed their approach. That they ended up picking correctly did nothing to assuage the outrage and incredulity heaped upon their heads by those who kept the faith. But now that the dust settled, and Michigan has lost to our "little brother," these acts of "treason" stand significantly. This isn't just about razzing our buddies.

I go back to those whiners that demanded a coaching overhaul. I wonder what they have to say this year. My guess is that they're not watching games, and certainly not reading this blog. They've moved on to Halloween costumes or winter vacations or something else to complain about. But the rest of us are still here. And we're trying to deal. Dave is numb. Brian, defeated by ennui. Hoover Street wants the season to be over. Wolverine Liberation Army sighs and then dutifully trudges onward. And Vijay is resorting to picking winners of all the other games. The bloggers are not dead inside, but in a sense, they are creating shelter for hibernation. Me, I just feel more disconnected every week. If I could get the slingbox to work, maybe I could share in the pain better. But reading boxscores of these games is like living through the last scenes of Chinatown every week. I'm helpless and frustrated. People here keep telling me to forget about it, that I'm living in one of the most exciting cities on the planet with summer just around the next corner. And maybe they're right.
Jake can't forget, and neither can I!

But I can't help noting that the life of a Michigan fan has changed dramatically this season. And honestly, it's OK for people to view it differently. My friends who have "turned their back" on the team have every right to do so. But I can't. I didn't go to Michigan for the football team. I went because it was the best education I could get and the right environment for me. My first steps into Michigan Stadium were on a gorgeous August day to watch the team trounce Washington State. I arrived and left by myself, not knowing anyone else who had tickets yet. That was really my first steps into this game, and even though that contest was hardly significant, I know now that it stirred something in me that has only become stronger every year until it culminated in a 22,000 mile road trip. Michigan football isn't that girlfriend I can't quite get over. It's more like a part of my family - suddenly in the role of the unreliable uncle who you have to forgive all the time.

I'm going to stand by this team, even if some of my buddies can't or won't. In the aftermath of my stunned, "woe is we" posting after the Toledo loss, some commenters reminded me that when we do bounce back, and we surely will, it will be all the better for this suffering. I don't doubt that. Though I have some great friends here in this new country of mine, none of them is a Michigan fan. Actually, none of them is a college football fans at all.

The past can't be taken away. We won a National Championship when I was 22 years old. We've been good ever since I set foot on campus. Maybe a little suffering isn't so bad. And hey, AARP Magazine named Ann Arbor the best city in America for retirees. (#1 in the nation, baby!) I just hope I don't have to wait until I'm that old for the joyful times to resume. But even if I do, I'll always consider myself a Michigan Man. I don't know how else to live at this point. Now let's get Uncle Borracho to rehab, quick.

Monday, October 13

Sagarin Check - Week 7

Things have changed a bit since our last Sagarin Check just a couple weeks ago. Again, speaking as a trained statistician, the Sagarin ratings have long been my favorite of the computer rankings around town for college football. Let's run the voodoo down.

The eyes have it - Atop this week's rankings, we find the Texas Longhorns, in agreement with both mainstream human polls. It's the win of the year so far. We'll see how they fare this week against Missouri.

I'm smelling what you're steppin' in - The Top Ten is in general accordance with the AP and Coaches polls with the only exception being that Boise St. is swapped in for BYU. Why is BYU still so lauded? Because they pasted UCLA? Give the Broncos some love. They've still got Ian Johnson! Who doesn't like that guy?

The decline of western civilization - As expected, the mid-majors are slowly dropping, though. Two weeks ago, they ruled the bottom half of the top ten. Now, they're stretching towards the teens.

Still Traveling - USC is perched way up at #2. Now, remember last time I talked about how the Bayesian Shrinkage shouldn't be an issue. Maybe I was wrong because their wins-and-losses-only ranking is 15 and is unbiased. But maybe I was right because their Predictor # is off the charts. However, some other goofy rankings may indicate we just don't have a big enough sample size without scores - Utah at #4 is one.

Whitlock must be proud - Ball State is the other. I'm not sure how this is actually possible, but Ball State is #5 on the wins-only chart. Here, they've been blowing people out, but if their SOS is 107, and we're only talking wins-and-losses, I don't see how they could possibly be #5. Also benefiting, Michigan State is way up at #10. They've had their share of close games, so

Moving up - Texas Tech now appears legitimate at #11.

More dams to build - Because they've played three teams in the top 13, Oregon State sits at #17 even though they're 3-3. Watch out for this time to rise and be ranked by the end of the year.

Failing the smell-test - Iowa at 38 seems high.

Sheesh - Clemson, whose coach was just let go, all the way down at 77 in wins-only. And Tennessee is at 115!

Harrisonburg in the house - James Madison University, a place I (kind of) visited on the road last year is the highest FCS team in the list at 63. That's ahead of Purdue, East Carolina, and Arkansas.

Conference call - The Big 12 has opened up a pretty solid lead on the Big Ten, who were in 2nd place when we last did this. Actually, the ACC is closing in on the Big Ten as well.

Worst Place! - Last time we did this, Army went out and won their next two games against Tulane and Eastern Michigan. This week, North Texas barely edged out Idaho for the lowest ranked I-A team. Watch out, Louisiana-Monroe, the Mean Green is coming for you!

I don't want to talk about it - Michigan is 82. Call it a wild guess that it's the lowest they've ever been since Jeff started this in 1985 (and hopefully ever will be - even if they get thumped this week, it'll be by the #3 team).

Saturday, October 11

Concerning Unspeakable Acts

I just walked out to my balcony. It's cloudy here in Buenos Aires. A dark day. A single bird told me "Poo tee weet." I came back inside.

What on earth…? No, I didn't watch that debacle. We don't get the Big Ten Network here. With minutes left in regulation, I sped through the play-by-play online. Believe me, I think that was enough. Still, we remained on the precipice of avoiding the worst loss in Michigan history. Then that little, brown football icon flipped to Toledo. Then it was game over. The jury reached its verdict. Your football team is terrible.

As much as I was disgusted with people booing the team this season, and as ugly as things have been at times, this is a new low. A loss to Utah was forgiven because it was the first game with new personnel. Notre Dame was bothersome, particularly since the team had every chance to climb back into the game, but fumbled it away. Illinois was explained away with the assumption that the Illini were just that good (incidentally, the gophers may have something to say about that). But this? I can’t possibly express the feelings. I’m not even angry. Just beaten. I was an out-of-stater. I didn’t arrive at Michigan expecting to get caught up in football. But after my second game, a tight loss to Notre Dame, it was a part of me. Now. Now? Again, I'm a beaten fan. And I couldn’t even see the game.

Has any college football fan base been through more torture over the past four seasons? Nebraska? Tennessee? I don't think there's a comparison. Let’s break it down.
  • 2005: the team blunders its way to its worst season since 1984. Fans are tortured by the following: Losses gift-wrapped by Chad Henne to Notre Dame and Wisconsin, losing the Brown Jug to Minnesota by choking at the end of the game in mind-numbing fashion. Tyler Ecker staying in bounds against Ohio State. Tyler Ecker running out of bounds in the Alamo Bowl after being shivved by Sun Belt referees.
  • 2006: the team dominates all opponents in the regular season leading up to the most anticipated Ohio State game in history. The modern patriarch of the program dies the day before the game. Michigan loses a wild affair in heartbreaking fashion, then goes on to the Rose Bowl where USC pounds them.
  • 2007: Appalachian State, Oregon and the Statue of Liberty, Teasing us by winning the rest of the games until Chad Henne’s shoulder and Mike Hart’s ankle, and Ryan Mallett’s ham-hands turn on us. A fleeting, joyous goodbye for Lloyd Carr in the Capitalism Bowl.
  • 2008: Please don’t make me do it.
What have we done to deserve this?

Last Thursday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. I can only fathom that we as a fan base have not done our due diligence in recent years and are therefore falling victim to a vengeful Old Testament God. If that's the case, which number plague was this game, and how much worse is it going to get? Let my people go.

There will be no bowl games this year. There may not be any more victories at all. Somewhere in South Carolina, a very close friend may be considering taking up smoking again. It’s not his fault. Here in Buenos Aires, is it time to switch to soccer? The bird was right. Because what else can you say at a time like this?

Update - others react:
MaizenBrew looks on the bright side
MGoBlog threw things (not like you think)
WLA crack open their history books
Hoover Street Rag quotes Bush. Yeah, the band. I know!
Genuinely Sarcastic is fed up with you people (rightfully so)

Monday, October 6

The Times That Try Men's Spirits

Last year, everyone I met expressed equal parts jealousy and excitement about my road trip. Nearly every day was a joy, meeting great people and talking about the game I love. But of course, there were many moments where I quickly realized I was dealing with loudmouthed imbeciles. That was funny for a month or so, but halfway through the season, the loudest spewers of nonsense started to get to me. Nowhere was this a bigger problem than at the Florida/Georgia game in Jacksonville. I actually got angry, particularly during the game. It came from both sides of the red and blue divide. I went and found some of my favorite Gator and Bulldog fans afterwards to remind me why I was on the road in the first place.

Saturday, I had no plans, so it was an easy call to hit up El Alamo again to see what we were made of against a good team. I wasn't optimistic at all about this game, and was roundly chastised by Brian for feeling that way. Maybe that got to me a bit, but for some reason I started to think that we had the goods to take Illinois out. Joe the Bartender is an Illinois grad, so I was stunned to find that the TVs were already claimed by Notre Dame/Stanford and Alabama/Kentucky. Unknowingly working against my own self-interest, I had directed the Notre Dame fans to the bar in the first place (via the internet), so I decided to chat them up and see if we could split time. While seeming a nice enough fellow, the Domer in charge was so old school, he thought Notre Dame was still good. Lauding all their wonderful recruits, he compared Michael Floyd to Randy Moss and averred that Notre Dame will beat Michigan in their next five meetings. He was so intent on Notre Dame, that he was reluctant to share the TV even during the halftime show. Little respect was given for the fact that without my help, he would never have found the only bar in BA showing football in the first place.

To my right were two older men relatively uninterested in football, choosing instead to banter about the US presidential race. Misinformation abounded. When they forcibly tried to explain to the waitress (adorable girl, by the way) that Obama wants to raise everyone's taxes and how that's going to kill the economy, I nearly butted in. But thinking back to those Cocktail Party frustrations, I let the argument go. Besides, by then the game was on, and Michigan was up 14-3, and a slew of Michigan fans in BA on vacation had just come in.

A day that began with minor irritation ended with frustration and further disbelief at Michigan's inability to hold on to the football. Mama said there'd be games like this, right? At least this year. And the all bonus mistakes don't help the cause any. I have to wonder if all the fumbles are because they're still spending so much time thinking instead of just playing. When we lost another on a kickoff, I and the other Wolverines had had enough. We let them put on baseball. Joe shouted out an "I-L-L", but nobody returned his call. He didn't seem to mind. Like last year, even though I can't get enough of this sport, there are days when the cards don't fall right. At least I could hit the nightlife in Buenos Aires. Juice Williams can't take that away from me.

Maybe I'll go back again next week. I know the Michigan/Toledo game won't be on, but perhaps that will be for the best. It's a must-win to be sure, and I don't know what I'll do if we lose. Maybe slug the nearest available loudmouth. College football is the wonderfullest game around, but it sure can bring you down sometimes.

Other reax:
MaizenBrew is decent
MGoBlog is deflated
Wolverine Liberation Army is defeated

Friday, October 3

Sagarin Check

To the people I met on the road last year, I would imagine it would come as a surprise that I'm a statistician. Yes, it's true. I'm a total nerd, and have been for most of my adult life. When I would hear complaints from fans about those sinister "computer polls," I'd have to cringe a bit. Computer rankings are not perfect, but they do serve a purpose. They take the emotion and "conventional wisdom" out of the decision-making process. That can have its own flaws, to be sure. By the end of the season, maybe everything is clear anyway, but soulless (and bias-less) computers can be a ballast to our beliefs or at times alter our convictions for the better.

Of all the computer systems, the Sagarin ratings are my favorite (until I find the time to create my own). The methodology is sensible, and founded in proper statistical analysis. I won't get into all the gory details, just take my word for it. It's probably still a bit early in the season for this, but with everyone's heads spinning from last week's rash of upsets, let's see what the poll has to offer. Note - even Sagarin himself thinks it's a bit early so he incorporates Bayesian Shrinkage which, in effect ties the rankings back to a pre-season assignment. But we're far enough along in the season, that its impact is lessened. So let's dive in and take a look at some of the more interesting points.

Roll Tide - Alabama tops the rankings, disagreeing with the AP, Coaches, and Blogpoll rankings, though many bloggers have outlined their reasons that Bama should be on top. However, when it comes to "pure points" without regard for wins and losses, they're only in 5th, suggesting that they're vulnerable.

They'll Have to Fight On - USC shows up at #3. This is where that whole lack of emotion comes in, but also the fact that the Trojans have only played three games. Remember, early in the year, blowouts are going to matter, and their two wins were stompings. But they're still #6 going solely on wins and losses without regard to points. Don't write this team off yet.

Mid-Major Love - BYU's getting all the press, but Boise St. is even higher at #6. And going just on wins and losses, Utah is #2! Note that "just wins and losses" is the version that gets used in the BCS (and comprises roughly 5% of the total outcome, so relax). There are four mid-majors in the top 12. In general, the strength of schedule for these teams will decline as everyone plays more conference games, but at this point, it looks like the computers won't prevent a mid-major from gaining a BCS bid.

Don't Believe the Hype? - Gameday may be coming to Vanderbilt this week, and the Commodores are ranked 16 in the blogpoll, but on "pure points", they're way down at 28. Sagarin thinks this means they're gonna lose some games, but I've long felt there's something to be said for teams that know how to eke out victories, no matter the score. If they keep it rolling this week against Auburn (and you know it won't be a blowout), consider me on board.

Forgotten, But Not Gone - Virginia Tech shows up at #16. They're all the way down at #24 in the coaches poll. Written off after that loss to East Carolina, they're still hanging around and are #10 in the BCS sumbission. Oregon is in a similar situation (#17).

Lions and Tigers, Oh My - Penn State and Missouri have both played Illinois, and in all conventional polls, the Tigers are well in front. But Penn State is #4 here and Mizzou is alllll the way down at #30. They have 142nd worst schedule. You'd think with the high-powered offense they'd be in good shape, but "pure points" has them even lower at 35. How all the pollsters can put Missouri above Penn State at this point is baffling to me. PSU performed better against their common opponent and have a shellacking of Trojan-killers, Oregon State. Similarly, Kansas is way down at #42.

In the Middle of Seven Sad Forests - Washington, 0-4 after losing to Stanford (and losing their QB), has played the nation's toughest schedule. They've lost to Oregon, BYU, Oklahoma. We can safely say that they're the best 0-4 team the country. Well, at least the one with the best excuses.

Some Kind Glitch? - McNeese State has the #2 rated schedule. They've only played one team in the FBS - North Carolina. Uhhh... wtf?

At the Bottom - The nation's worst team is Army, who just lost to Texas A+M. So I can't imagine anyone is going to argue with that.

Conference Call - When it comes to ranking conferences, the computers can be that much more useful. It's hard enough to keep 119 teams straight, but you can at least examine a team's entire schedule. But our emotions may put too much into a game between, say, Illinois and Missouri. According to Sagarin, Big Ten is the second best conference in the country. Hard to believe, ain't it? Incidentally, SI's - Bill Trocci at least mentions that fact and actually appears to take it under advisement in his weekly conference rankings. The Big 12 is just behind them, and the SEC is way out in front. The Mountain West remains back at #7 even though they claim three teams in the top 12. Let's keep that in mind, 'kay?

Thursday, October 2

We're Going Bowl Streakin.....maybe

As you probably know, Michigan holds the current record for longest consecutive bowl appearances. After owning it for years, Nebraska missed a bowl during the transition to Bill Callahan. Don't they feel silly now? Given the current "requirements" to participate in a bowl game, once this record is relinquished, it will never be regained. I mean ever. Michigan fans love to tout the programs many historic accomplishments, but unlike "Most wins of all time," this one is precarious. Perhaps even more important than the streak itself is the fact that qualifying for a bowl game means an extra six weeks of practice. This would obviously be a huge boon for next season given the new system. Plus, recruiting, donations for facilities and plenty of warm fuzzies.

To guarantee a bowl slot, Michigan must get to 7-5. At 6-6, there would remain a chance, but we would probably need some help. First, let's break down the lay of the land.

The Big Ten has seven bowl tie-ins: Rose, Capital Citrus, Hall of Outback, Alamo, Champs, Insight, and Motor City. A Big Ten team with a 6-6 record can not be selected over a team with a better record, even if the bowl in question is in Detroit and the team in question played Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State, and Florida Atlantic in their non-conference schedule. 6-6 only gets Michigan in if the Big Ten has remaining slots. Bumping up to eight bids for the conference via the BCS could be huge. With the current +1 format that means there are three at-large bids, plus the two slots for the BCS title game. A second bid for the Big Ten would be very helpful. Unfortunately, it does not look very likely. With Michigan beating Wisconsin, and with Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State all playing each other, the odds of two teams with only one loss are not high. Furthermore, the mid-majors are currently on a tear with three teams currently in the top 17. They will grab at least one of the at-large bids, possibly two.

Now, a 7-5 Michigan team will surely be offered a slot, even if we are 11th in the conference. Sorry, Northwestern, that's just how it is. The key question is, if Michigan ends up 6-6, will that be good enough for top seven, record-wise? Where things stand today:
Team Overall Record
Penn State 5 - 0
Northwestern 5 - 0
Michigan State 4 - 1
Ohio State 4 - 1
Minnesota 4 - 1
Wisconsin 3 - 1
Iowa 3 - 2
Michigan 2 -2
Purdue 2 -2
Indiana 2 -2
Illinois 2 -2

The top four teams and Wisconsin are sure to be going bowling and will surely be better than 6-6. That leaves two open bowl bids. Guessing their final record based on what the teams have remaining:
Team Final Record
Minnesota* 6 - 6
Iowa 5 - 7
Purdue 5 - 7
Indiana 3 - 9
Illinois 7 - 5
*It is impossible to tell how good Minnesota is at this point, so I assumed that they are moderately sucky.

Beacuse these are mere guesses, you see that for those final two spots, it's going to be very tight. Anyone except Indiana could conceivably reach 7-5 this season. There's no clear prediction, but we do know that getting to 7-5 will guarantee Michigan a berth, regardless of what happens.

So what's Michigan going to do then? On one hand, I'm going to get a bit mathy with this, and on the other, I'm going with my gut. But I had math flakes for breakfast, so maybe my guts can crunch these numbers.

The schedule:

Game Chance of Victory Expected Record
Illinois 35% 2.35 - 2.65
Toledo 90% 3.25 - 2.75
at Penn State 15% 3.4 - 3.6
Michigan State 30% 3.7 - 4.3
at Purdue 50% 4.2 - 4.8
at Minnesota 65% 4.85 - 5.15
Northwestern 40% 5.25 - 5.75
at Ohio State 25% 5.5 - 6.5

Perhaps I'm being a bit pessimistic here; let me know what you think of the percentages. If these guesses are correct, the final prediction comes down to whether you round up wins or losses. The Wisconsin win changed everything. If the team were sitting at 1-3 right now, change that final prediction to 4.5-7.5 and start praying really hard. The bottom line is, every game counts from here on out. A bowl game is within reach, but not without at least one more upset. This week would be a great time to start. I recommend beginning by fielding the kickoff.

Wednesday, October 1

The Start of an Era

More than any time I can recall, Michigan fans came into this season in a forgiving mood. We knew how difficult it would be. It is college football. In the beginning of any season, hope is always available. But we're no longer at the beginning. And the only hope remaining was that the team could improve as they go. I almost didn't make it to the bar, knowing we had little chance of winning and that the Slingbox signal, so far from pristine, would only add to any frustration felt during a defeat. Of course, once Saturday rolled around, I couldn't resist. I've never been one to accept negative fate in advance.

El Alamo is pretty much the only bar in Buenos Aires showing college football. Consequently, there are people from all over the US. We had fans of Auburn, Tennessee, Florida State, Texas, Notre Dame, and a Panamanian who doubled as a devoted and vocal Sooner. And that was just for the early games. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to take an egalitarian approach to the changing of channels. When you're watching via the internet, you can't split that signal between TVs. We missed large chunks of the game, but perhaps that was for the best. At the end of that first half, I had serious contemplations of delving more deeply into my alcohol and giving up my lobbying efforts for more time on our game. Brock, the Wisconsin fan sitting next to me, felt the opposite, calmly enjoying the score updates that seemed to come every couple of minutes.

But we bounced back just in time to see Koger's touchdown. And there was that hope again. Further channel hopping added to the tension before we finally got back, once again just in time for a Michigan score. Brandon Minor's touchdown run got the whole bar excited. Well, nearly everyone. We hung on through Thompson's interception return after which there was much rejoicing. High fives all around! OK, not quite. Poor Brock looked more like this:
With time winding down and the Auburn/Tennessee match finally over, I tracked down the bartender demanding a swift return to the activities Ann Arbor for Wisconsin's last, tension-laden drive. Then it was over. I and the other Michigan grad in the bar belted out an unruly and off-key rendition of The Victors. Sometimes you win.

No matter how it went down, whether you want to attribute the outcome to pluckiness or luck or karma, the impact of this win will last. It's a confidence boost, to be sure, but beyond that, it proves that Michigan is still Michigan. The fans that didn't leave at halftime were rewarded, but knew not to rush the field. This isn't Rutgers. Regardless of a new regime and freshmen running the offense, we know what we are. And the team proved it in the second half. The hope's no longer blind. The future looks brighter today.

Others react:
Johnny (RBUAS)
Wolverine Liberation Army

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