Friday, January 02, 2009

More bowlthoughts

Bleah. To borrow a phrase from Ulysses Everett McGill, it's the acme of foolishness to read too much into a bowl result when gauging a team's future prospects. The celebratory atmosphere, the extended preparation time, the massive disparities in motivation levels ... trying to draw meaningful conclusions from a game played under those kinds of conditions is always going to be tricky at best and just plain "eg-na-ra-moose" at worst. Remember how Auburn's 2002 bowl beatdown of Penn St. foretold a run to the national title in 2003? Sure you do.

But for all of that, I can't shake the feeling that the LSU we saw in Atlanta New Year's Eve was closer to the LSU we're going to continue to see under Les Miles than the LSU that got buried by Ole Miss, fell behind by a bajillion to Troy, horked up the W at Arkansas, etc. The co-defensive coordinating scheme was every bit the disaster for Miles the co-OC experiment was for Tubby in 2003, so much so that he didn't even have to hire to hire Chavis to see improvements--he just had to get rid of the mistake (or have the mistake get rid of itself) and things brightened up automatically. Assuming between Chavis and the innumerable lurking terrors that are always going to exist on LSU's defense--hey, look at that, they've got the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, hooray!--that they'll be back to Chik-Fil-A Bowl normal next year, all they'll need from their QB to get to 10 wins is to not hand out pick-sixes like so much Halloween candy. Exeunt Jarrett Lee, enter the Jordan Jefferson we saw do not a single thing to hurt his team against a more-than-competent Georgia Tech D, and it seems like that problem's solved, too.

So as much as I would love to just brush off a 35-3 annihilation of the ACC's best team as "eh, bowl fluke," I don't think I can. It's those last few games with the towel thrown in after 'Bama wrapped up the West that look substantially more flukish from here.

Johnson. Even with his (first, remember) Tech squad looking as discombobulated as it's possible to look, and even on a call that looked on the surface like the panic move that finished his team off for good, Paul Johnson still showed why he's one of the best coaches in America. That fake punt on 4th-and-8 in his own territory down 21-3 midway through the second quarter? Genius. Honestly. If Tech punts there and gives the LSU offense yet another crack at the reeling Tech D, with decent field position to boot, what are the odds Tech comes back to win the game? 1-in-100? 1-in-50? Not short enough, in any case, to really be worth discussing. Tech had to score on that possession, or the game was over. Most coaches in that situation would be willing to punt and concede that the game, was, in fact, already over and that he was willing to accept defeat. Johnson said Screw that and rolled the dice, knowing that whether he punted or LSU took over on the Tech 26 or whatever, the game would be over anyway. He coached to win, coached like only victory and not some ultimately meaningless final score was the only thing worth caring about. That, ladies and gents, is how you want your head coach to coach.

USC. Two thoughts:

1. Like everyone not an active Trojan fan, I was pretty taken aback by USC's willingness to outright taunt the poor Nittany Lions yesterday. The preening and showboating and dancing, that I'm fine with--the school is only right down the street from Hollywood, after all--but man, the flag-planting and jawing and general obvious lack of respect for their opponent? That's not cool, dude.

But I have to wonder--and please do pardon the dime-store psychology that certainly didn't have as much to do with yesterday's outcome as "Mark Sanchez played very, very well at quarterback"--if it's all part of what makes USC USC. No, the Trojans didn't seem to care much about Penn St.'s right to respect or "the dignity of the game," or whatever, but the Trojans don't seem to care especially deeply about anything--particularly when you contrast the sideline demeanor of Caroll's tap-dancin' fools vs. the likes of, say, Mark Dantonio, not even football. I think this is a great way to approach a big end-of-year game against a formidable opponent, as light and loose and unawed by either the event or their opponent as possible. If a team's head is that clear, all that counts is the talent--and USC always has more of that than anyone, and of course leaps and bounds more than the likes of Penn St. By the same token, a team that's loose and levelheaded about a Rose Bowl against the Big 10 champions is liable to cross over into being positively comatose for the likes of an Oregon St. team that's lost to Stanford or even a UCLA team that does things like lose 44-6 to Utah. What makes USC great is, at least in part, also what makes them so vulnerable to their annual season-killing upset. (Of course, what makes USC great is also things like "Rey Maualuga" and "Taylor Mays.")

2. This sort of thing drives me completely insane:
What if the Trojans' otherwise impregnable defense hadn't gotten Jacquizzed in Corvallis? What if the media hadn't written off the entire Pac-10 (which, if you hadn't noticed, finished its bowl season 5-0) by late September, thus turning the Trojans into an afterthought in any BCS conversation? What if USC's previously inconsistent offense had more frequently played the way it did Thursday so as to wow the voters with more "style points?"
Emphasis added because I ask you, Mr. Mandel (and the many other media blockheads who have followed the "Oops, we should have voted Trojan!" derailed train of thought over the past 24 hours): what else were poll voters supposed to do? In choosing between Florida, Oklahoma, USC, and even Penn St., voters are being asked to do the impossible: choose between four teams who have, essentially, identical resumes. All have BCS conference titles. All have one loss. If we open it up to include BCS conference teams that didn't win their conference but still finished with only one loss--as we probably should when you consider the insanity of the Big 12 tiebreak--in come Texas, Texas Tech, Alabama. There is no logically airtight way of choosing between these teams. I can argue why I think, say, Oklahoma should be ranked ahead of Texas because I have to pick one or the other, but that doesn't mean it's fair to have one team with the same number of losses and an equally valid conference title ranked ahead of another when that ranking means something. The most fair ranking entering the bowl season would look something like this, I think:

1. Florida, USC, Oklahoma, Penn St. (tie)
2. Texas, Alabama, Texas Tech (tie)
3. Utah
4-119: Everyone Else

There are two points to all that rambling: first, I would say "we need a playoff" if we didn't already have a playoff that, somehow, only consists of two teams and one game (the "bowl system" doesn't decide a champion, or we would be sending Florida to the Sugar and Oklahoma to the Fiesta; what we have is a two-team playoff). But we do need a playoff with more teams*. Second, when pollsters are asked to make choices between teams with essentially identical resumes, they have to use something as a basis for their decisions, and schedule strength-as-a-result-of-conference-strength is as good a reason as any. No pollster should apologize for ranking USC fourth or fifth because they were looking at, say, Arizona's loss to New Mexico or Oregon's overtime game with Purdue instead of a psychic prediction they'd beat BYU and Okie St.

ATS. Straight-up win-loss records are the simplest way of measuring a conference's collective bowl performance, but the vagaries of scheduling and matchups mean that records against-the-spread are a much better way. I mean, when Northwestern took Missouri to overtime, that spoke a lot better about the Big 10 than it did the Big 12, right?

So, check out the ATS records entering the Cotton Bowl, ranked by win percentage: Pac-10 4-1 (.800), SEC 3-1 (.750), C-USA 3-1 (.750), ACC 6-3 (.666), Big 12 2-2 (.500), Sun Belt 1-1 (.500), Big 10 2-4 (.333), Mountain West 1-3 (.250), Big East 1-4 (.200), MAC 0-3 (.000).

What does that tell us? Don't get too high on the Big East's West Virginia and Rutgers wins when Cincy and Pitt have dropped the ball. Likewise, the ACC's been
better than their under .500 mark straight-up; they've played nine games and BC and Georgia Tech have been the only ones to really disappoint. The MAC's been even worse than you might think. And to this point, the Big 12 isn't quite backing up its "best conference this season" reputation.

Vandy. The story of the crazy-lucky 'Dores is also crazy-fascinating; it's getting a full post either later today or sometime soon.

*Not many more teams; two, specifically, for a total of four. I'll devote a post to the JCCW's official playoff proposal next week.

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