Quality of Competition and the "Lousy" Big Ten
Much of the perception that Ohio State was hopelessly outmanned relied upon the presupposition that the Buckeyes struggled to eke out victories in the second-rate Big Ten conference. Meanwhile, perceptions persisted that the Hurricanes were a hard-hitting, physical bunch that played and dominated top-flight competition.
·"Mark my words: The Buckeyes players will get hit in the mouth so hard and often, they'll think Woody Hayes still is the coach."
·"What the world wants from sports is the best entertainment possible. In my mind, having watched Ohio State Survive too many struggles, the best title game is Miami vs. USC. We won't have the chance to see it happen. That's wrong."
·Though he maintained that Ohio State deserved to be in the Fiesta Bowl, a third columnist lectured Big Ten quarterbacks and Offensive Coordinators. Among his quotes:
o"There was and is simply a general lack of both quarterback talent and play-calling creativity involving the Big Ten's coaches and coordinators."
o"There are coordinators out there (in the Big XII and Pac-10) who did think - and do now think - at a higher level than the coordinators in the Big Ten who left a LOT to be desired this year… and a lot of plays out of their playbooks that should be incorporated into next year's offensive packages…"
oHe cites Oklahoma State and USC as fine examples of what a team's offense should look like and states, "Big Ten fans should take note of this so they can realize why their teams didn't make the grade against straight A student Ohio State this year."
o"Next season, the skills of the league quarterbacks, and the smarts of league coordinators, need to be better in the Big Ten, period."
oHe ripped Michigan, Navarre, and Terry Malone because they lost THE GAME more than Ohio State won it. "In the end, I can understand by both realities are true: because Malone is not the best coordinator, sure, but also because Navarre is simply a limited quarterback. Neither person deserves total blame, because neither one allowed the other to be fully successful."
A cursory glance at the comments illustrates the facts do not fit with the espoused thesis.
First, the Big Ten had a splendid out-of-conference record in 2002. Though it might not have been their best mark ever - it was still very respectable. Harshly criticized by some as antiquated, an examination of what these supposedly inept offenses of the Big Ten did against out of conference opponents should have been in order. Did they have any success? Did they win games against quality competition? The answers were yes and yes. In particular, Ohio State faced worthy competition in Washington State (who was at least as strong as anyone the Hurricanes played) and Texas Tech. Miami opponents Tennessee, Florida, and Florida State - while normally top-flight programs - all had down seasons, and each lost their bowl game.
Second, if the Big Ten were so horrible, it should have showed up in their bowl games. It did not. While the Big Ten with their "lousy" offensive coordinators and feet of clay quarterbacks excelled in the Bowl season (ending up 5-2 and very nearly 6-1), the Pac Ten bombed and the Big 12 ended up only one game above .500. Granted, the bowls are not necessarily reflective of the quality of a conference because they are not designed as evenly matched playoffs to determine which conference is superior, they are about TV ratings and money. Again though, if the coaches and quarterbacks were so much better in every league outside of the Big Ten, the records should have reflected this reality. They did not. Meanwhile, the conference and even out-of-conference foes of the Buckeyes had few offensive issues in their bowls (with the exception of Penn State), scoring an average of 28.6 points per game while allowing only 22.8. Ohio State opponents' overall bowl mark stood at 5-3 with 3 wins over ranked opponents by the evening Ohio State matched up man-to-man with Miami. By way of comparison how did Miami's competition perform in bowls? Miami foes failed to notch a single win over a ranked opponent, suffered a 3-4 mark, and were outscored by an average of 28.4 - 25.3 per game.
Third, not only did Ohio State provide a quality opponent for Miami, the game was roundly hailed as more entertaining than any other bowl. Multiple writers and sportscasters have even placed the contest among the best college football games ever played. So much for the Fiesta not being the "best" title game…
So much for that "lousy competition" theory.
The problem here was once again a faulty presupposition. Because of a lackluster showing in the 2001-02 Bowls, the Big Ten was the favorite whipping boy for the media in 2002-03. Instead of waiting to evaluate the conference as the season progressed, the assumption was that the Big Ten was still a fairly lousy conference and the offensive production by Ohio State foes was reflective of a skill and talent deficit. I.e., had Ohio State been forced to play a team with a real offense week in and week out - say like an SEC or Pac Ten team - then Ohio State's title chances would have gone the way of the Dodo bird. Wins against quality competition were dismissed - because as usual, they interfered with the convenient story line. It is not that the writers are incapable of such quality work; it is simply that they frequently chose not to invest the time even though the data was all there for their perusal.
The Insurmountable Talent Gap
Some stories simply took a gander at the respective rosters of both teams and proclaimed the Hurricanes paper champions by virtue of their talent.
·"Why not just invite McGahee, Dorsey, Johnson and Winslow to the Heisman ceremony and have everyone else in college football wait outside in the cold for a separate ceremony called The Most Outstanding Player Outside of Miami Trophy?"
·One writer commented that doubt still existed about who was the best player in the country, "But the nation's best team? There is no doubt about that."
·"And the whole enchilada in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is this: Miami has more talent than Ohio State. A lot more."
·"One AFC scout says Miami's roster is loaded with NFL talent and that at least 35 to 40 current Hurricanes will get a long look in NFL training camps. "There's too much talent for them to lose," he says."
Here we go again.
How many times over the past 5 years have sports folks drooled on themselves about the Texas talent? What have they won with all that talent? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. What about all that talent at Ohio State in the 1990's? What did Ohio State win in terms of national titles? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. What about Florida State? All the talent the Seminoles had between the late 80's and the entire decade of the 1990's, and yet they claimed only 2 national titles? Isn't the team with the most talent always supposed to win the game?
Talent alone will not cut it. You cannot simply step out on a field and "out-talent" the opposition every week. Sooner or later that will catch up to a program, and when it does the players and coaches are often left stunned. So what if Miami has 40 players who will be in the NFL. Respectfully, I say - Big, fat, hairy deal! Unless the rules have been altered, only 11 players from each team are allowed on the field at one time. That means that OSU (or anyone else for that matter) needs only to match up with the best 22 for Miami in order to emerge with a win.
Talent does not equal wins. It is as simple as that. It sure helps, but never have I seen the official scorekeeper award teams touchdowns for "most talent". Talent mismatches have the potential to help you win a ballgame, but Darryl Royal opined that when you use that word to describe a player, it means they have not done anything yet. In other words, having more talent means nothing if that talent does not perform to its maximum efficiency.
Style Points and Strategy
The lack of an aesthetically pleasing style led to multiple writers panning the Buckeyes.
·Though this writer later admitted that it could be hyperbole in a follow up piece, he still tossed out this verbal jab, "Ohio State has got to be the worst unbeaten major college team in modern history."
·"But all right, Ohio State will play in the National Championship game - probably as heavy underdogs to an undefeated Miami team that has its own problems - and I'm sure we all wish its players and fans good luck. Just don't ask me to believe they're the best team in the country, that's all."
·"The Buckeyes of today play football like the Buckeyes of 30 years ago, when Woody Hayes said, "There are three things that can happen when you pass, and two of them ain't good."
·"Things aren't as they seem. I can't tell you how many comments I've heard about Ohio State playing down to the level of its competition. Folks, that's not what's happening. The Buckeyes aren't a very good 12-0 team. And they won't be a very good 12-1 team after they lose at home to Michigan on Saturday. Here's where I stand on a mythical Ohio State-Iowa matchup: The Hawkeyes would win big."
·"Congratulations to coach Tressel and his Buckeyes, but what they get is the chance to be beheaded, not crowned. We're not getting the two best teams playing for the national championship. We're getting the best team in the country (the Hurricanes) and a 13-0 team (the Buckeyes)…Do you know any levelheaded Buckeye fans who actually believe they have the second-best team?"
·Following its victory over Michigan, on November 27, Yahoo Sports ranked OSU as the #4 team in the nation (behind Iowa and Oklahoma).
Have you ever heard the adage, "Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good?" Occasionally football teams get flat out lucky and emerge victorious when they should have been vanquished. An example of this phenomenon might be the 1990 Colorado team that was given a 5th down against Missouri. A second example is the Flutie Hail Mary versus Miami in 1984. A third (also involving Colorado) might be the Cordell Stewart bomb against Michigan. Yet another was probably the play of the year in 2002 when a last gasp pass was tipped directly to an LSU receiver streaking toward the end zone to give the Tigers an incredible victory over Kentucky. How can one tell if it is luck or skill? At some point, the team that is simply fortunate will eventually run out of luck, and close losses or even massacres will be the result. Not a single team involved in the plays listed above made it through the season undefeated.
On the other hand, when a team consistently wins close football games, it is a sign of something more than blind luck. When a team consistently comes from behind to win late in the game, it is a sign of something more. When a team consistently comes up with a critical play to thwart a scoring drive, it is a sign of something more. When a team consistently converts its 4th downs with their backs to the proverbial wall, it is a sign of something more. When a team consistently puts itself in position to win with its kicking game, it is a sign of something more.
How would the Buckeyes stack up against such criteria?
·4 times Chris Gamble came up with huge interceptions that quite possibly saved the game for his team (Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Penn State).
·2 times Buckeye offensive players (Gamble against PSU and Clarett against Miami) single-handedly saved a touchdown after a turnover. In both contests, a touchdown might have translated to a loss for the Buckeyes.
·2 times Will Allen intercepted a ball that would otherwise have been a touchdown were he out of position (Cincinnati and Michigan).
·4 times Craig Krenzel scrambled late in a game either for the first down, the go ahead score, or to put the Buckeyes in position to convert a first down (Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan). That does not even count his 4th and 1 perfect pass into the teeth of the wind at Purdue with less than 2 minutes left.
·4 times Ohio State scored in the 4th quarter to win the game, and in three instances less than 5 minutes remained in regulation (Cincinnati, Purdue, and Michigan).
·On 2 other occasions, Ohio State came from behind in the second half (Washington State and Penn State).
·Nugent's reliability this season goes without comment, but I will mention it anyway. How many other teams had field goal kickers with a mark of 24 for 26 going into their bowls?
·What might not have been noticed is that Groom was a clutch punter. When allowed to get his leg into a kick, Groom boomed crucial 4th quarter punts against Cincinnati (55), Penn State (59 and 55), Wisconsin (74), Purdue (48), and Michigan (48 and 49). His "short punts" of 37 and 43 yards were against Illinois and Purdue when he kicked the ball to their 15 and 8 yard lines respectively.
At some point, this kind of play stops being luck and is instead reflective of a disciplined team with talent on the field and saavy in the coaching box. Players don't just "happen" to be in the right place this often and this consistently.
Nor is the 2002 Buckeye team unique. The 2000 Oklahoma Sooners staged late comebacks or engaged in 4th quarter stands to secure victories in contests against Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Kansas State, and Florida State. The 1998 Tennessee Volunteers edged Syracuse, Florida, Auburn, Arkansas, and Florida State by a combined margin of 23 points. In 1986, the Nittany Lions defeated Notre Dame, Maryland, and Cincinnati (none of whom finished over.500 for the season) by a razor thin average of 4 points. Each of these national champions had their share of scrapes, but each one found ways to win on multiple occasions. Not surprisingly, each one entered the championship game as heavy underdogs. Fittingly, each one emerged the victor.
Does anyone else see a pattern here?
·"Playing fast is Miami's style, and it won't take long to figure out who's going to win, Miami 41-14."
·"If you truly understood this program, you would know what is in store for January 3rd. There will be no upset. Mark it down. Cancel that fairy tale ending and victory parade in Columbus. Miami is on a mission that started long before you even got the idea for this lame brained story or Ohio State decided they were ready to make a long awaited run at the title…Bring your best on Friday night, Ohio State. Miami deserve (sic) no less. When it's all said and done: Hurricanes 34 Buckeyes 13."
·"Final Score 2003 Fiesta Bowl: The Miami Hurricanes 44-10"
·"Miami 35, OSU 10"
·"Their only chance [Ohio State] to win the national championship is if Miami loses its edge. Not that I see anything like that happening. My predicted final score? Try 48-10, ‘Canes -- a mismatched score for a game involving mismatched teams."
·"Go ahead, crunch the numbers. In the end, superior talent wins out. Buckeyes get crunched 37-17."
I almost don't even wish to waste the time and effort to discuss some of these absurd predictions. Suffice it to say, none of these were made based on any sort of factual investigation. Florida A&M (17), Rutgers (17), Connecticut (14), Temple (21), and West Virginia (23) all scored more points on Miami during the 2002 season than all but one of these prognosticators felt Ohio State would. Meanwhile, only Texas Tech even breached 20 points on Ohio State during the 2002 season, and 14 of those were junk points late in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes allowed a mere 41 points to their final 5 opponents combined, yet those same teams scored 141 points and went 4-1 in their bowls.
To take this one step further, Jim Tressel had already coached in 6 national title games at Youngstown State. SIX title games in 15 years! Plenty of statistical data existed to determine how his teams performed in such games. Were they routinely blown out? Did they score above their average during the season? Did they hold the opposition below their average point totals? In 6 national title games, only Georgia Southern blew them out by a margin of 24-59. In the other contests, Tressel coached teams finished 4-1 and stifled powerful offenses while outscoring them by an average of 22-15.
To be perfectly honest, other than individuals trying to make a name for themselves or a decided lack of research, there is no reasonable explanation I can offer for the outrageous final score predictions. Most were better suited for Never-Never Land than an attempt to tell the story of a game that would grip the nation before it was completed.
Tomorrow - Part IV: A Model Approach
Tim Brando, "Some Things are Worth Seeing Twice." The Sporting News, November 20, 2002.
Bob Wojnowski, "Hey OSU Fans: UM Would do you a Favor by Winning." The Detroit News, November 22, 2002.
Ron Rappaport, "Ohio State could be Toast-itos in title game." The Chicago Sun-Times. November 25, 2002.
Rappaport, "Name callers aside, OSU fans know the Truth." The Chicago Sun-Times. November 27, 2002.
Martin Fennelly, "UM can be beat; Now It's Ohio State's Turn to Try." TBO Sports, Dec 8 2002.
Matthew Zemek, "Monday Morning Quarterback: Attention, Big Ten Fans: Look to Stillwater and LA." College Football News, December 2, 2002.
Dan Lebatard, "With So Many Stars, Call Them Team Heisman." Miami Herald Dec 8 2002.
David Whitley, "Who Can Beat Miami? Only ‘Canes Themselves." Orlando Sentinal, December 8 2002.
Rick Telander, "Miami will Run Away With It." Chicago Sun Times, December 9, 2002.
Dick Weiss, "Miami: We'll bowl ‘em Over." NY Daily News. December 9, 2002.
Jay Mariotti, "Empty Bowls -- Again." Chicago Sun-times, December 9, 2002..
Jon Saraceno, "Bowls Botched Again." USA Today, December 10, 2002.
Tim Brando. "'Canes Have it All Over the Buckeyes." The Sporting News, December 11, 2002.
Chris Dufresne, "The Time's Rankings." L.A. Times December 12, 2002.
Jeff Miller, "Buckeyes use the Rhetoric of Big Underdogs." Miami Herald, December 17, 2002.
Wann Smith, "28 Minus 1 Equals 0…and Smith's Bowl Picks." Pigskin Post.com, December 18, 2002.
Omar Kelly, "UM's Gore Just Being Frank." Orlando Sentinal, December 24, 2002.
Scott Martineau, "Fiesta Bowl Game Plan." Miami Insiders Network. December 27, 2002.
Mike Bianchi, "Warning Flags up for Ohio State." Orlando Sentinal, December 29, 2002.
Darryl Richards, "Stallings believes in the Buckeyes." Foxsports.com. December 29, 2002.
Chris Bello, "It's Still a Canes Thing…" Miami Insiders Network, December 31, 2002.
Matt Hayes, "Part 1: It's the Buckeyes' Party." The Sporting News, December 31, 2002.
Matt Hayes, "Part 2: It's the Buckeyes' Party." The Sporting News, December 31, 2002.
Stewart Mandell, "Marquee Matchup: CNNSI.com's Stewart Mandel Breaks Down the Fiesta Bowl." CNNSI.com, December 31, 2002.
Pete Fiutak, "2003 Fiesta Bowl Preview: 13 Reasons Why Ohio State Will Win." CFN, No date provided.
John Donovan, "Blowout City." CNN/SI.com, Jan 2, 2003.
Stewart Mandel "Closer than you think." CNNSI.com, Jan 2, 2003.
Richard Rosenblatt, "The Case for Miami: Speed Kills Buckeyes in 41-14 Loss." AP writer. January 3, 2003.
CFN staff "2003 Fiesta Bowl Preview: Ohio State vs. Miami" CFN, January 3, 2003.
Jim Donnan. ESPN chat. January 3, 2003.
* Joel Bushbaum - who worked for Pro Football Weekly. Prior to his tragically young death on December 29, his last prediction was OSU 26 and Miami 24.
E-mail Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org