The Sweep: Gut-Feeling Rankings

Modern-day sports is more packed with statistics than ever, but if you want to know just how good your team is, all you have to do is ask your gut. The Bootleg describes the emotions that characterize all ten levels of a team's competency. Plus, The Sweep delivers its latest Top 25 and tries to improve on its 11-4 mark against the spread.

Week 6 Poll

1. Oklahoma (Change: 0)
2. USC (+1)
3. Penn State (+1)
4. LSU (-2)
5. Texas (+1)
6. Florida (+2)
7. Alabama (-2)
8. Missouri (-1)
9. Georgia  (+1)
10. Ohio State (+2)
11. Texas Tech (-2)
12. BYU  (+2)
13. Utah  (+2)
14. California (+6)
15. Virginia Tech  (+2)
16. Boise State (+2)
17. Oklahoma State (+2)
18. Kansas (+3)
19. Auburn  (-8)
20. Wake Forest (+3)
21. Michigan State (+3)
22. Oregon (0)
23. South Florida (-10)
24. Wisconsin (-8)
25. Arizona

IN: Arizona
OUT: Northwestern
ON DECK: North Carolina, Vanderbilt

Counting only goes so far:
 I don't list teams' records because it's an apples-to-oranges comparison. You can reasonably conclude that a 11-5 NFL team had a better season than an 8-8 team, because even if the 8-8 team played a slightly tougher schedule, there's not enough variance between pro sports teams to make up for three wins. On the other hand, there will be SEC teams that finish 8-4 and would be favored over a 11-1 Boise State...

Reputation matters: ...The obvious question then is when do we get to leapfrog a two-loss team over an undefeated squad? Certainly, schedule strength matters a lot, but this early in the season, when virtually every BCS team has run up a gaudy record on non-conference pasties, the tie goes to the team that's proven itself over the past five years.

The past is prologue. Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Insert your high school history teacher's favorite saying here, but experience shows that one-loss LSU (our No. 4) or USC (or No. 2) is much less likely to end up a flash in the pan than undefeated Vanderbilt (unranked) or Alabama (No. 7). Don't believe me? Heck, as a Stanford fan, would you rather face LSU or Vanderbilt?

For every Boise State that fans can point to that does crash onto the scene with a breakout year, there are five teams you've never heard of that start off 7-1, only to lose four of five down the stretch. I'll stick to my hearty dose of skepticism and take my risks on missing the next big thing.

Daring to dream: As soon as I saw this sign creep onto ESPN's College GameDay last Saturday morning, my imagination immediately started racing, naturally, to what it would be like to have the national game of the week on the Farm. Stanford football is certainly on the right path, and Wake Forest and Vanderbilt (here's my second-favorite Vandy sign ) are showing it is possible.

Where would they broadcast from? The track, probably.

For what game? Maybe we're second-fiddle to USC in the Pac-10, and GameDay comes out for a showdown of a 5-1 team and a 6-0 squad.

Erin Andrews has a human-interest story on senior quarterback Andrew Luck, and the whole nation is watching as the Red Zone tears down the goalposts as the final horn sounds on a 27-24 thriller.

Okay, maybe Lee Corso won't be on campus this year or next, but for the first time I can remember, the thought of Stanford being the epicenter of the college football universe, at least for one Saturday, isn't that far-fetched. For the first time since a fat envelope bound me to Stanford and its sports teams, Cardinal fans have a real reason to hope. For the first time I can remember, we feel like a real football team.

Seeing how this season's on-field results and, especially, 2009 recruiting has shifted my attitude toward Stanford football got me thinking...

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Gut-feeling rankings

...The experience of being a fan is so intrinsically emotional.

How your team plays dictates your mood. Last year's USC win produced pure euphoria. Our campus felt like an entirely different place that night; our campus was an entirely different place that night. Conversely, I was in my share of losing Stanford locker rooms over the years, and you can't help but feel depressed by association. Anyone who calls themselves a fan can surely identify with the experience of having 22 virtual strangers shape their mood for days or even weeks.

So given that performance so dictates mood, why not try to rank teams based upon how they make us feel?

I tried, and I really think these make sense. Here, from No. 10 on up, is a rank of football competency based upon how your team plays with your emotions:

10. Ironic - Your team is so bad that you sense history in the making, or it's just too plain painful to root for your team, and so you start rooting against it. See this year's Detroit Lions as they pursue 0-16. Their fans are at level nine now, but will jump to here once Detroit's 0-10 or so. See any team atop ESPN's "Bottom 10." See the t-shirts ubiquitous in lower Manhattan: "NYU football, undefeated since 1953." (They don't have a team.) See 2006 Stanford.

9. Pitied - Duke. Baylor. Where we thought Oregon State was after week one (they're actually a level six or seven). Where we thought the Washington schools were after week one. (They're coming close to dropping down to No. 10, Washington State especially.) Where Notre Dame was last year. Stanford under Teevens. You still beat the truly crappy teams and the Portland States of this world to go 2-10 every year. That's just enough to make for the worst of both worlds -- you don't get any hype for being historically atrocious, but your losses aren't even competitive enough to play the "what if" game of the No. 7's. It's how most of Trent Edwards' four years on the Farm were. The worst part of it all is opponents don't even take pleasure in beating you -- you're just pitied.

8. Overmatched - The teams that get the "they play hard, you can't overlook these guys" quotes in the newspapers... and then get beat by 25. Washington State basketball before their breakout. Where Stanford really will be if they don't make a bowl this year. Every 4-8 team across the land that a Florida or USC or Oklahoma rolls 45-17. This is probably the most underestimated category, because every fan of a level-eight team thinks his team is in the next category... 

7. Heartbreaking - Even though your team is moving up the ladder of competency, this is the worst type of squad to root for. You just missed the playoffs, or a bowl game, or beating the archrival by one score. You spend the whole offseason reliving those last five minutes of the deciding contest (or, if it's the 1982 Big Game, decades). For every team that did get robbed though, ten level-eight teams think they were too, so this category is not as big as you would think. Stanford fans, for example, will place this year's squad if they don't make a bowl.

6. Surviving - One of my favorites. Any scrappy team that plays ugly as all hell and keeps hanging around -- but wins to finish on the flip side of the coin as a level-seven heartbreaker. If Stanford makes a bowl this year, it will almost assuredly be in this fashion. Oakland baseball all those years. Last year's Stanford basketball team was a level four on its good days, but played here in those games when the guards couldn't hit the backside of a barn, but the Lopez twins just carried the team on their backs past an inferior opponent. The Marquette victory is a perfect example. 

5. Bipolar - You are Arizona State football, any season. Stanford basketball 2004-05. Notre Dame football in an up year. You're good enough to beat anyone, and bad enough to lose to just about anyone too. Your talent has you thinking big thoughts early in the season, but your lack of discipline and composure always come back to bite you in the end. Preseason top 25, but invariably finish 7-5 with Texas scoring 50 points on you in the Holiday Bowl. In the offseason, if you're an NFL team, your star player legally changes his name, or holds out on a contract while doing sit-ups in his driveway, or gets caught with cocaine and exotic dancers, or mouths off in the press about the coach, or writes a tell-all book years later about how crazy the locker room was all along.

4. Contending - You are Stanford basketball, 2007-08, clearly second-best in the Pac-10 to UCLA. You are Oregon, or Cal, or whichever team gets to finish second to USC football in the 200_ Pac-10. You are the Red Sox to the Yankees, pre-2004 ALCS. For one season, this is a great place to be as a fan: you know in your heart that your team is good enough where it has a shot to sneak up a level, but know in your brain that you are only second-best in your league, and there's no shame in losing as long as you go down fighting hard. Your coach says "we played well, but they were just better," postgame, means it, and everyone praises his class. Of course, this gets really old really quick, and if you are the Red Sox to the Yankees (pre-2004) or Texas (pre-Vince Young) to Oklahoma, or Ohio State (under John Cooper) to Michigan for too long, you develop one heck of an inferiority complex, and your fans become the enraged message board trolls the rest of the conference hates.

3. Magical - You are 2002 Ohio State en route to the national title, despite winning half your games by a touchdown or less. You are 2006 Wake Forest, winning the ACC despite being outgained in your conference. You are Stanford making the Rose Bowl about a decade ago. You are the stuff Disney movies is made of and, if you're an NFL team, Peter King writes a 10,000-word piece praising the composure and calm under pressure of your quarterback (if your QB is white) or your coach (if your QB is black). Fans of contending, bipolar and surviving teams all hope to catch lightning in a bottle at the right time and vault to this level.

2. Dominant - The majority of your conference champions and national-title winners go here -- teams that won because they were better than the rest of their competition (unlike a magical team), but not so much so that you'll be remembered for decades to come. You're a preseason top-five team, you play fellow top-15 teams close, maybe drop a game or two early, but win the big rivalry games to earn the right to roll over some ACC team in the BCS (or Ohio State in the BCS Title Game). With USC a rung higher yet the past few years, the Pac-10 has lacked a team at this level for years -- which is why the rest of the country rightfully views the league as the Trojans and the little nine.

1. Deity - You are 1995 Nebraska or Jimmy Johnson's Miami, or 2006 USC (okay, bad example), or last year's Patriots (ditto). The question isn't whether you'll win the national title, but by how many. The games almost aren't fun though -- it feels like you're playing Madden on easy mode because you're winning them all 40. Add to a lack of exciting finishes all the bandwagon fans, that winning starts to come for granted, and the pressure to win every single game to set historical records, and I'd rather my team be a rung or two lower.

- Obviously these aren't the most scientific rankings in the world, but I really like the idea that there are intrinsic feelings for given levels of competency. I also like that the rankings are intuitive and simple -- you know how your team makes you feel. Finally, these ranks allows for cross-sport comparisons. Were last year's Patriots, Red Sox or Celtics better? You can ask the numbers, or you can trust your gut.

Speaking of numbers...

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We close with our picks section, also known as Don't Quit Your Day Job:

Last week: We haven't had a losing week yet, with Ohio State and USC making up for Auburn's loss at Vanderbilt. 2-1 straight-up, 2-1 against the spread.
Season: 11-4 against the spread, 12-3 straight-up.

Oklahoma (-7) vs. Texas (Dallas)
Texas is 5-0, having beat each opponent by at least 24 points. Oklahoma's 5-0, having beat each opponent by at least 25 points. Oklahoma's played a slightly tougher schedule to date, Sam Bradford's numbers are unreal, I trust Oklahoma's defense more than Texas' and I trust Bob Stoops more than Mack Brown. Hard to pick against the No. 1 team in the country.
Oklahoma 27, Texas 10 

LSU (+4) at Florida
This looks to be a really fair line. Both teams have one loss, Florida to Ole Miss and LSU to Auburn. Florida has yet to play a ranked team this season and has questions in its secondary. (Sound familiar, Stanford fans?) But, from LSU's perspective, a night game in the Swamp is a mighty tall task, and the Tigers might not have the passing to exploit Florida deep. It should be close, so we're going with the rare middle here -- LSU to cover, but Florida to win.
Florida 27, LSU 24 (OT)

Penn State (-5) at Wisconsin
My safest pick of the week. Wisconsin cannot pass to save its life and has lost two straight. Penn State has won every game this season by double digits.
Penn State 34, Wisconsin 17 

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