The Sweep: College Football Flaws

Cindy Crawford has her mole, and college football has its warts too. The Sweep is grateful for the game, but does tackle some of the thornier, more frustrating aspects of the sport this week. Plus, as always, we have our top-25 and weekly picks. It's admittedly the slowest week of the season, but who does the Sweep like in Saturday's biggest games?

Week 11 Poll

1. USC (Change: +1)
2. Florida (+1)
3. Texas Tech (+1)
4. Texas (+1)
5. Oklahoma (+1)
6. Alabama (+2)
7. Penn State (-6)
8. Utah (+1)
9. Ohio State (+1)
10. Boise State (+1)
11. TCU (+1)
12. Oklahoma State (-5)
13. Georgia (0)
14. LSU (0)
15. Missouri (+1)
16. BYU (+1)
17. Ball State (+2)
18. North Carolina (+3)
19. Florida State (+4)
20. Cal (-5)
21. Michigan State (-1)
22. Pittsburgh (+3)
23. Cincinnati (+3)
24. Oregon State (+2)
25. South Carolina (+1)

IN: Cincinnati, Oregon State, South Carolina
OUT:   Georgia Tech, Maryland, West Virginia
ON DECK: Virginia Tech, Tulsa, Oregon

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This Week in College Football is Brought to You By Zoloft

Or maybe NoDoz. College football fans across the nation are going to need some medication because this week brings out the serious blahs. Let me list my complaints:

1. Nobody's playing. Gameday should broadcast from the Stanford IM flag football game Saturday afternoon. Our biggest games this week are Florida-South Carolina, North Carolina-Maryland, Arizona-Oregon, Boston College-Florida State, Virginia Tech-Miami and Texas-Kansas. Normally, those are the 6 p.m. ESPN2 games we switch to in between the commercials of USC-Cal or Florida-LSU or whatever that week's real game is. (By the way, Vanderbilt-Kentucky is this week's ESPN2 night cap.)

Your national network (ABC, NBC, CBS) games: Navy-Notre Dame, Cal-Oregon State, UNC-Maryland, South Carolina-Florida, BC-Florida State and Oklahoma State-Colorado. Plus, Stanford is playing what, on paper, should be its most lopsided game of the season, and my hometown Michigan just snapped a five-game losing streak. Yawn, yawn, yawn.

2. The ACC still stinks.

Normally, we can just ignore the league and preserve our love for the sport, but this week, the league takes center stage by default. Republicans should have pointed to the conference as an example of what happens when a "spread the wealth" policy takes root. Everyone is stuck between two and four conference losses, and three and seven total wins. Four years ago, we all thought the league would be the nation's first superleague when it raided Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech from the Big East. Instead, too many good teams beat up on each other, preventing anyone from becoming truly great and capturing our interest.

3. Non-college football complaints

A. The election just ended.

The Sweep realizes some of you might be glad it's all over, and most of you aren't OCD-level political junkies, but I'll bet some of you out there are also wondering why we suddenly have an hour of free time to fill every day.

B. My knee hurts.

I know, you don't care. Would you prefer a breakdown of that thrilling Vanderbilt-Kentucky matchup? I'm trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon in a month, and here I am sitting in a knee brace, unable to run. I have to shower with this thing, sleep with this thing, limp to the bathroom with this thing. And I'm 22. Running's supposed to be good for you -- I'm going to be in a wheelchair by 40 at this rate.

C. The economy makes everyone cranky.

I'm largely shielded from real-world realities thanks to this magical invention called "grad school." (Although, in this current market, Diet Pepsi is too much of a stretch; I'm only drinking Publix brand, no joke.) My college friends though? All cranky and marginally employed, if at all. And my non-Stanford friends? Forget it. (I never realized how much a Stanford degree mattered until I watched my high school friends just throw up their arms in defeat trying to find a job.) My parents? Definitely cranky. You, reading this, thinking about your job? Most possibly cranky. All the more reason we need some good college football.

But no, just brainstormed more reasons yet college football is in a rut right now...

4. Stupidity reigns at the top

I'm having a grand ole time this season, watching college football in a week with actual games worth watching. It's the end of Texas Tech-Texas, or Penn State-Iowa, and a big-name team is about to go down. Then, ABC inevitably ruins my mojo with the "No. 1 and No. 2 teams were 3-5 last November" graphic.

That's not that shocking at all, for several reasons, and it upsets me that no one else seems to realize these:

First, there's a composition effect. The No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the polls aren't actually the best teams in the country. USC or Alabama, Texas Tech or Florida, I know darn well who I'm picking in those hypothetical matchups. So it's not that shocking that Texas Tech or Alabama would lose. Tell me USC and Florida's record this November, because I'll bet it's over .500.

Second, there's a luck effect. Maybe Texas Tech and Alabama, if they were to play 100 seasons, would be 9-3 teams on average, but just got some good bounces thus far. (And, sure enough, both teams have indeed won close games this season.) Then, the fact that these teams happen to be undefeated and thus atop the polls doesn't matter, they're just going to win 75 percent of their games moving forward on average, like they would have had they had average luck up to this point and been ranked No. 12 and No. 14. Think about it this way: where would the luckiest, most overrated team in the country be ranked? No. 1, right. Why should we be shocked when they lose?

Third, and most compellingly to me, there's a timing effect. Say Texas Tech, Alabama and six to eight other teams are all on their way to 10-2 seasons. The reason Texas Tech and Alabama are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 instead of any of those other teams is because Texas Tech and Alabama are undefeated right now -- which makes it more likely that they've played their easiest opponents thus far, meaning that their hardest games are still to come. So, ironically, that a team that's not actually nation's best, like Texas Tech or Alabama, is No. 1 in the country actually makes it more likely that they're going to lose soon because of the tougher opponents still to come, all else being equal.

Finally, if each team's tough games happen to fall in correct order, as was the case last year, then you get a chain reaction where one overrated team, on the basis of being undefeated due to luck and an easier schedule, plays a tough opponent and loses, unsurprisingly. This opens the door for the next team, overrated for the same reasons, to assume a No. 1 or No. 2 spot, play a tough team and lose, letting another not-so-good team rise to the top, and so on and so on. Add it up at the end of the month, and No. 1 and No. 2 teams went 3-5 in November.

Why John Saunders thinks this phenomenon is a source of endless intrigue, up there with the aurora borealis, is beyond me. I call it common sense.

 

Back to my college football complaints...

5a. More controversy (and stupidity) is on the way

I think Alabama and Texas Tech each have at least a 70 percent chance of losing between now and the end of the season, which means it's as likely as not that both teams lose by season's end. Accept our numbers and there's a 90 percent chance that one of the teams will lose over the next month, and we will be left trying to pick two BCS teams out of a worthy group of eight.

Time for sportswriters to blather in their columns, drunk football fans to blabber at their tailgates, and coaches and ex-jock TV personalities to bloviate over the air about which two teams deserve the national championship invite. Never have I seen such an impressive inability for so many people to demonstrate an iota of critical thinking capacity.

Let's see. First, there's the inevitable comparisons between two teams.

Team A lost later. Team A lost at home. Team A lost to a better team.

Okay, I have a retort to each of those. Team B lost earlier, so Team A was better earlier in the season. Team B lost on the road, so Team A was better on the road. Team B lost to a worse team, so Team A was more consistent, week in and week out, against the teams it should have beat. Give Wilbon the first note card, give Kornheiser the second and let the two debate endlessly. Go.

Look at baseball, where 90-72 is 90-72. We don't break ties on when you lost, where you lost or who you lost to. We, strange concept, actually play the game.

Another weak comparison is that Team A beat Team B. This is not as stupid, and the NFL does actually use head-to-head results as a tiebreaker, but it's only so powerful, and people make it the end-all be-all. Stanford was better than USC last year because of the Card's win? Clearly not. So it shouldn't be a sacrilege to suggest that, this year, Texas might be worse than Oklahoma.

Throughout all this debate, there's an irrational defense of the current bowl system simultaneously occurring over airwaves. I don't know whether it's because media talking heads are getting pressure from their networks, who make significant money broadcasting bowls, or because they want to play devil's advocates while everyone else hates the BCS, or because of some misapplication of the journalistic concept of fairness, which apparently means you have to say one nice thing about the BCS for every complaint you register, the merits notwithstanding. Or maybe they're just parroting what they've heard before. Whatever the case, right now on ESPN, our SportsCenter anchor kicked it to Kirk Herbstreet with, I'm not kidding, "Most of America wants a playoff. If you squint right now, we kind of have one."

Really? We're going to have a playoff and invite half the top-10 teams but not the rest, seemingly at random? And the teams that do win their so-called playoff games might not make the national title anyways? And some teams may need to win two or three "playoff games", while others may need to win just one toughie? And home and away will be arbitrarily assigned by whether it's an odd year, so Texas Tech is at Oklahoma, or even year, so vice versa, not by teams' actual strengths? And a team that happens to in its "playoff game" later will be more rewarded than a team with a September "playoff" win? And a team that collapsed in last year's "playoffs" will have to win more impressively to qualify again this year? Would this fly in any professional league?

Guess I'm not squinting hard enough.

 

6. The pile-on effect

Look, I love college football more than anyone.

I've been making weekly polls since I was eight. I've cried when my teams have lost.

Celebrating the USC win, or Brook Lopez's Sweet-16 clinching shot months later, were two of my best memories in all of college.

Just last week, I wrote a whole column on the special place sports, college football in particular, has in our hearts: "I just care, way more than I should. And while I'm still plenty young, maybe I'm old enough to realize that when you find something that makes you irrationally care, you hang onto it as hard as you possibly can."

So just like it's okay to complain about your family, but it's unthinkable for anyone else to, or it's okay to point out the weaknesses of your team, but anyone else who does is a troll, it's okay for people who really do love college football to complain about the sport -- but Heaven have mercy on anyone else who thinks to go down the same route. And, unfortunately, the next two months will subject us to plenty of talking heads using the broken bowl system as proof of college football's inferiority to other sports, the NFL in particular. How dare they.

 

...Writing this column not only let me get a load off my chest, it also all but insured that this week will be one of the best this season. If we've learned anything from the sport these past few years, it's just that -- the games and the weeks we expect to be sleepers turn out to be among the best of them all. And if that's not a great reason to love this sport, I don't know what is.

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

Last week:  Texas Tech -3.5 over Oklahoma State was good with four touchdowns to spare, while we lost USC -17 over Cal by a field goal (despite USC gaining 300 more yards), and LSU +3 vs. Alabama in overtime (with 'Bama missing a field goal to end regulation that would have made for a push). We've gotten lucky this season too, and the record's still plenty gaudy, so no complaints.
2-1 straight-up, 1-2 against the spread.

Season:
20-10 against the spread, 23-7 straight-up.

Texas (-13) at Kansas
Big favorites have been living a big lifestyle this season. I think a systemic bias with spreads is that they don't take into account how easily teams score points. Texas and Kansas both score points aplenty, and so I really, really like Texas here. The Horns were 12-point favorites to Oklahoma State a few weeks ago, and now they're just one point more at Kansas? This is my lock of the week.
Texas 45, Kansas 24

Virginia Tech (+4) at Miami (Thursday)
You know it's an ugly week when one of the three best games comes to you from the ACC. (And we had to stretch to keep North Carolina-Maryland out of the final spot.) This was a great matchup in 2002, now, not so much.

Virginia Tech on the road is like when your ex-girlfriend's had one drink too many and sees you with your new girlfriend: a disaster waiting to happen. The Hokies on the road this season: L 27-22 East Carolina, W 20-17 North Carolina, W 35-30 Nebraska, L 28-23 Boston College, L 30-20 Florida State. Miami's offense is better, but their defense is worse. Still, they're at home, and they've won four straight.
Miami 28, Virginia Tech 21

South Carolina (-22) at Florida
Every Florida win this season has come by at least 23. Florida's last four games: W 51-21 over then-No. 4 LSU, 63-5 over Kentucky, 49-10 at then-No. 6 Georgia, and 42-12 at Vanderbilt. Think the Swamp will be fired up for Steve Spurrier, in Florida's last SEC home game this season? Plus, the Gators know they control their national title destiny.
Florida 45, South Carolina 13 


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