Friday, January 30

Futbol Season Is Nearly Upon Us

There's some sort of Super Bowl thingy this Sunday. It's been interesting to see the reaction, er, non-reaction to the event here in Buenos Aires. I have pretty much avoided all coverage of it, and that's the way I likes it. I don't even know if I'm going to watch the game at all. I don't care who wins and am only rooting for Steve Breaston to garner the MVP (or at least be stopped just short of the goalline by Larry Foote). Maybe if I can teach some locals about the game, it'll be worth enduring. After all, it is America's fourth biggest holiday, right?

With the real football season already in the books, and one last game to go in the version that still employs Tony Siragusa, we're in the thick of the offseason. Reports about recruiting and coach-hiring and all sorts of other barely-football-related matters abound. But here in Argentina, the autumn season of La Primera División Argentina is about to kick off. Everyone tells me that the fans here are craaaazy and thinks I should compare them to the college football fanatics from home. Putting aside false modesty for a moment, I can't think of a better person to play judge.

Soccer is nearly unwatchable if you're not actually rooting for one of the teams. At this point, I have no team of my own and don't have any preconceived notions about any of them. It's a rare opportunity to make a fresh choice. I feel like every other team in my life was somewhat chosen for me, but this is my chance to become a fan with eyes open all the way. So I aim to pick one and will do so very publicly here in this space. Coming next week, the criteria I plan to use and a synopsis of every team I can realistically choose. Before making my final decision, I plan to check out the stadiums and fans as well. Hopefully by mid-season, I'll be painting my face and cursing at the television again.

As I said, soccer games are kinda hard when you don't care. Soccer highlights, on the other hand....seriously groovy:

Thursday, January 22

Fisking the ESPN Prestige Rankings

ESPN has put together a "prestige ranking" of all the I-AA college football programs. "ESPN's Prestige Rankings are a numerical method of ranking the best FBS college football programs since the 1936 season." Obviously, this is more of an exercise that is just for fun and not to be taken too seriously. But at times, I like to take frivolous things more seriously. It's the nerdy statistician in me. So let's take a look at what they did and where they may have erred.

Their system:
National Title: 25 points
Major bowl berth: 10
Major bowl win: 10
Conference Championship: 10
AP Top 5 Finish: 10
AP 6-10 Finish: 6
AP 11-25 Finish: 4
Heisman Winner: 8
Bowl Appearance: 3
Bowl Win: 3
10-win Season: 2
Week as AP #1: 2
Win over AP #1: 1
Each All-American: 1
First Round NFL Pick (since 1970): 1
Losing season: -2
TV Ban year: -1
Bowl Ban year: -2
Probation year: -1
Financial-aid Penalty year: -1
Recruiting Penalties year: -1
Each penalty of "show cause action:" -2

What they definitely got right:
  • 25 points for a National Title is dead on.
  • They handled the conference championship perfectly, and have the right amount of points on it (see their page for details or just trust me).
  • 8 points for a Heisman trophy is probably right. Perhaps it could go to 10, but it is a major aspect of the sport, even if you disagree with it.
  • The AP finish rankings are pretty much perfect.
  • When it comes to one point for each All-American, you could debate that this isn't important and that team success should supersede everything. But everywhere I went, the great players were integral to the thoughts and feelings that everyone expressed to me. At LSU, I heard no less than 40 renditions of Billy Cannon's punt return vs. Ole Miss. Even the youngest Dawgs wanted to discuss Herschel Walker's amazing freshman season. Tommie Frazier could run for governor of Nebraska one day and win in a landslide. When talking about prestige, certainly the great players who made the great plays matter. Do offensive linemen really belong in this category? Maybe not, but to keep the methodology consistent, you have to include them.
What they got wrong:
  • Including points for a 10-win season is very problematic. It inherently means less than it used to, thanks to the additional games on the schedule and the fact that those additional games are almost exclusively facing the weakest competition available. I don't think that beating Georgia Southern really improved Georgia's prestige any, but it did get them to 10 wins this season. Furthermore, it shouldn't be included because it is redundant with all the other measures. In statistics, it's akin to what we'd call an overspecified model.
  • Including each week ranked as the AP#1 and giving it two points, yet counting a victory over the AP#1 with only one point seems totally backwards to me. Alabama held their #1 ranking the week they beat Mississippi State. Did that really add to the program's prestige in any way? The sport of College Football is inherently about the big moments. And there is no bigger moment in the sport than taking down the #1 team in the country. This should be worth 10 points on its own. Just ask Texas Tech fans. Crabtree's touchdown against #1 Texas trumps any prestigious moment in the history of the program and will until they win the conference (and even then, there will be some who argue that this was bigger).
  • Strength of Schedule is basically absent outside of the one point for taking down the AP #1. It's a part of the game (well, it used to be anyway). I realize it would be hard to include this, but the "big games" are important. Perhaps including nationally televised broadcasts would have been good (though quite unfairly skewed as well). Or at least a point for every win over an AP ranked team.
  • First round NFL Pick doesn't belong here. Does Ryan Leaf's NFL experience add to the prestige of Washington State? He was chosen 3rd overall. Also, since it only goes back to 1970, it will skew the data to more recent success. ESPN still has trouble understanding that the two sports are not the same. Also it's relatively redundant with the All Americans.
What's missing?
  • Part of a program's prestige has always been wrapped up in its all-time great coaches. Can you think of Ohio State without Woody Hayes? Or Alabama without Bear Bryant? It would not have been hard to include points for any coach that was with a school for at least ten years and had at least a .700 winning percentage. For Penn State, give Paterno credit for each decade of tenure.
  • Because their system goes season by season, there is nothing for all-time records. For most fans, this certainly plays into the argument for the prestige of their school. It would not have been hard to include a certain number of points for every 100 wins all time. Yes, there would be some redundancy, so perhaps this is not needed.
  • Nothing for attendance? Shouldn't Miami should be penalized for their lousy fan base? Fans are a part of the game, too, and certainly affect the prestige of a program.
They actually address this issue, saying:
The AP poll was introduced that season, making it the first time the longest-standing news organization in the United States began ranking teams and crowning a national champion. Starting in 1937, the NCAA began recognizing "major college programs" (now known as the FBS). To accrue points, a program had to be recognized as one of these major programs by the NCAA.
This is a curious decision to me. When we are talking about "prestige", that doesn't precisely equate with "history", but they're certainly related. To begin in 1936 is to begin after the death of Knute Rockne. In these rankings, we have no Four Horsemen, no Red Grange, none of the "point a minute" Fielding Yost teams, and none of the great Army teams from that era. However, all these seasons matter to many fans today, and are talked about specifically in terms of prestige. Go to South Bend sometime and see if nobody quotes Grantland Rice to you. I promise you it's not possible.

The omission of all early seasons will knock down Michigan and Notre Dame at the least. Perhaps this is by design? As I learned on the road last season, Notre Dame is universally resented around the nation. Michigan is coming off a down year. They have two of the most active internet fan bases and will surely be irate about a lower ranking, causing them to talk about this endeavor that much more. Uhh... kinda like I'm doing right now. It seems like their rationale here doesn't really meet with the overall goal of the project, so I find myself skeptical about the decision. I mean, shouldn't Michigan beating Stanford 45-0 in the very first bowl game add to its prestige a bit? We'll see how things net out as they reveal 1-10 over the next two days. So far, #s 11-119 feel pretty accurate.

Overall, these rankings make a lot more sense in the pre-BCS, pre-horrendous scheduling era. If anything, they point out how much of the tradition has eroded in the last ten years. If I had to bet, my money would be on Nebraska or Oklahoma to take the title. Those "bonus" scholarship players and years of beating up on the other 6 teams in their conference are going to pile up the points.

Tuesday, January 13

Road Games Top 25

I'm not part of the Blogpoll (and really, it would be unforgivable if I were considering how hard it was to see games from Buenos Aires this year), but I'm putting together my own Top 25 anyway. As I said last year, these rankings are based on season-long performance, not “who would win right now.” Because that would be an exercise in conjecture and inherently debatable. Explanation at the bottom:

1) USC
2) Florida
3) Texas
4) Utah
5) Oklahoma
6) Penn State
7) TCU
8) Alabama
9) Texas Tech
10) Oregon
11) Ole Miss
12) Boise State
13) Ohio State
14) Oregon State
15) Georgia
16) California
17) Florida State
18) Virginia Tech
19) Oklahoma State
20) Iowa
21) LSU
22) Cincinnati
23) Missouri
24) West Virginia
25) Arizona

Here's the thing. The way the schedules are nowadays, most of the teams play a pretty weak slate. A great team should win all its games. But teams either have off days or happen to schedule opponents who are equal to the task. These days, such dream matchups are all the more rare. When multiple teams are tied in the loss column, some choose to disregard the loss and only look at the wins on their resumé. I tend to go the opposite way. Some losses are more forgivable than others.

USC was penalized for losing to a perceived lousy team. But as the season progressed, it became clear that Oregon State was much improved after their first two performances (thanks largely to the discovery of tailback Jacquizz Rogers). In addition, nobody seems to recall the Trojans' loss was a Thursday night road game. Year in, year out, we see more road teams struggle on weeknights than in any other type of game. There must be a backlash against them after all the rampant pro-USC coverage because I don't hear anyone pleading their case. I don't particularly like 'em, but to me, USC played the best football this year, including their absolutely flawless performance in the Rose Bowl. Penn State made a bunch of mistakes, but even with a perfect game would not have seen victory. Florida had a great season, but a home loss to Ole Miss is clearly worse, and USC generally dominated every game they played afterwards. Plus, I don't think that Oklahoma is that much better than Penn State anyway (one slot to be precise).

What to do about Utah? Like it or not, style points matter in college football. Utah barely escaped against Oregon State, Air Force, New Mexico, TCU and, um, Michigan. Nobody was lamenting the supposed shoddy treatment for Utah until they handled Alabama. Now they're national champions? Alabama was overrated all season thanks to their opening-weekend victory over Clemson (who, incidentally, ended up at 7-6 and fired their coach). 'Bama played a schedule with few heavyweights, but included Arkansas State and Western Kentucky. They failed to dominate any of their stronger opponents. Yes, I know they're the SEC West Champion, but this was the weakest SEC year in a while. In my mind, the result of the Sugar Bowl did more to validate the notion that 'Bama wasn't that good than the fact that Utah is the best in the land.

I feel like I have TCU too high (credit for the bowl win, but what else did they really accomplish this year?), but I don't know who else to put in that slot, so they remain #7.

I'm left feeling very disappointed by this season, and not just because Michigan was terrible. As I said in the aforementioned posting, I have come around on the playoff debate. It is inevitable (eventually), and at this point it is best for the game, as long as they keep it to six teams or fewer (as many others have noted, look no further than this week's NFC championship game for supportive evidence). Given the current system, Oklahoma didn't deserve the BCS nod, and I can't fathom why any voter outside of Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer would have put them where they did. Sure, their schedule was slightly stronger than that of Texas, but they were beaten by the Longhorns, whereas Texas lost a road night game to a strong team by one second. Haven't we now learned about teams rolling up extravagant point totals yet not having a consistent defense. I said no conjecture, but I do believe that Texas could take Florida head to head. As it stands, they each played Oklahoma evenly, though the Sooners made a lot more errors against Florida. So we must yet again lament the matchup that should have been, just like we do seemingly every other year.

Wednesday, January 7

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

It feels like so many aspects of college football have been changing lately. It's been over a year since I finished my big journey, and in that time, we've become acquainted with so many new names, teams, and rules. A few weeks ago, the folks from Stone Station made their annual trek to Salem, VA for the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. In 2007, even though my itinerary was complete, I decided to brave the winter weather and make an extra road trip to Virginia at their invitation. Obviously, that would have been darn near impossible from Buenos Aires this season. I chose to only be there in spirit.
Hmmmm. These teams look familiar.

At Auburn, the richest boosters finally got rid of Tommy Tuberville, and not because he nearly trampled me at the Iron Bowl. Apparently, Tommy never licked the right boots in Auburn, but as the trees at Toomer's Corner were loaded with toilet paper, no one in attentance could have imagined that he'd be gone a year later.
Tommy's second-to-last Iron Bowl

Meanwhile, across the nation, everyone from Barack Obama to the lowliest intern at ESPN has been weighing in on whether we need a playoff. Blah blah blah. So maybe things haven't changed so much. Actually, my opinion has been altered a bit since I wrote about the topic last time, partly due to my interview with Lloyd Carr. His main point - right now, we're deciding a champion, but not letting it be decided by what happens on the field. And that's pretty right, especially to fans who today happen to be in Austin and South Central.

Still, I can't help but be filled with uneasy trepidation about the topic. When at Wisconsin, I interviewed a man named Ken Simmons who'd played for the Badgers as a walk-on. He'd been a part of the team during their only winning season between 1963 and 1981 when they managed a 7-4 record in 1974. Decades later, he was able to see his son walk on and a daughter play for the softball team. He continues to work with the athletic department. Like many veterans of the game, he held a long perspective on things. The last thing he said to me in our interview was "Look at why there is the passion there is for college football. You don’t want to change that a whole lot. I think that’s why they’re moving as slowly as they are."
Not Ken Simmons

Over at, Stewart Mandel recently recounted the story of his first trip to the Rose Bowl. It was a visceral reminder of mine two years later. That's a tale I've planned to tell in this space for a while now. I hope to share it soon. Needless to say, it was one of the highlights of my life. The point is, so many of the people who offer their expert opinion on bowls, playoffs, and championships don't really know anything about college football. It's not the NFL. And in fact, that's a big part of why we like it.

Clearly the BCS isn't working. We were told it would provide a definitive answer on the National Championship. Like many newfangled doo-dads, it failed to deliver on its promises, but we all should have known they were too good to be true. Now fans are left with unattainable expectations. One day, the NCAA will institute a playoff. It is inevitable in the long run. But since they have totally botched the BCS since its inception, do we have any faith in the idea that they won't completely botch a playoff, too? The BCS is terrible, but it's still better than a wrong playoff would be. 16 teams? Welcome to the NFL minor league. As Ken said, if they're not careful, they could ruin the game completely. With ESPN and Fox having as much control as they do, it's more fragile than you think. Besides, if the NCAA isn't going to address the issue of cupcake non-conference scheduling, then I don't trust them to tackle this with the good of the game in mind either.

When you see the games live and in person, you catch a lot more than you can over TV. That's just the way it is. It's how I was able to identify Ohio State's weaknesses on defense just days before Illinois exploited them last year. But when you can't see the games at all, it's like you're watching everything underwater, depending on blogs and youtubes and choppy Slingbox connections to capture the moments for you. You're that much farther removed. That's how this season has been for me. Honestly, I miss Saturday. And whatever changes occurred were far away. With Michigan this year, maybe it was for the best. But it's still my favorite sport, the game I can't get enough of. It's been hard not to be close to it after my year "on the ground." But with a National Championship(ish?) game to be played tonight, let's just pause a second to remember how special it is. No amount of controversy, even it comes via executive signing statement from the White House, can trample that.

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