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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Friday, August 18, 2006

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BlogPoll roundtable-up, at House Rock Built. Let us talk amongst ourselves:

1. What's the biggest ripoff in this preseason poll? Either pick a team that's offensively over or underrated, or you can rag on a particular voter's bad pick (hey, we're all adults here, we can handle it).
He's ragged on West Virginia enough, at his peril, so SMQ will look at Penn State, which comes in at No. 19. Why? What makes anyone think this team is going to look remotely like last season?

PSU's last two winning seasons have been followed by immediate reversions to ninth-place wannabe status. The drop off here, due to the killer linebackers at least, may not be that severe, but it will be sufficient to keep the Lions out of the top 25. SMQ said Purdue will beat Penn State for fourth place in the Big Ten, and he's pretty confident about that pick.

If Penn State auccessfully replaces its fifth-place Heisman Trophy-finishing quarterback and four suddenly solid senior offensive linemen and a first-round draft pick and two other very productive starters on the dominant defensive line and three veteran secondary starters, maybe it can compete for a New Year's Day game. Otherwise, SMQ is thinking Alamo. Think of 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004 as the mean, to which they shall return.

2. What shold a preseason poll measure? Specifically, should it be a predictor of end-of-season standing (meaning that a team's schedule should be taken into account when determining a ranking), or should it merely be a barometer of talent/hype/expectations?
Preseason polls should measure what voters think the poll is going to look like at the end of the season. Once the season starts, they should measure performance (in practice, this means wild swings week to week), but there is no way to do this beforehand. There's nothing to measure but last year, and last year's not relevant anymore.

So voters should make the effort to determine how the season's going to go, which team has a chance in which games, how many losses each team is likely to have, etc. Some teams are going to be ranked higher because they don't play a tough schedule, and vice versa, but that's what the final poll's going to look like, too. And who wants to pick Alabama, for instance, in the top 20 when their schedule looks like it's going to leave them at 7-5, and Boise State over there's going 11-1? No, the preseason poll should be the official "bet" you make to be evaluated against actual results at the end of the season, and therefore should take into account strength of schedule to accomodate for the reality that good teams lose to other good teams and have to suffer the penalty it undoubtedly will in the regular season.

3. What is your biggest stretch in your preseason ballot? That is to say, which team has the best chance of making you look like an idiot for overrating them?
When Notre Dame's your number one and California's your number two, you got some splainin' to do. Because more people picked the Irish in that general vicinity than did so Cal, because ND is generally regarded as a legitimate mythical title contender and because SMQ feels such little personal investment in that pick - it's a crapshoot, and the Irish really just sort of fell there - he's going to be hanging his wack prognosticating hat on Cal. With the Bears, he's on the bandwagon. He's driving the bandwagon. That's a pick that required actually suspending much of the criteria used to knock everyone else - young quarterbacks, three new offensive linemen, not-awesome defense - for a more or less a gut feeling that the team would return to its 2004 level and benefit from its main conference rival's inevitable fall. That is a pure unadulterated hunch, a guess, that does not even pretend to follow objective standards or evidence. So, yeah, it's a reach. But the rewards - nice e-mails, prediction groupies, probably the cover of ESPN: The Magazine - make the risk worthwhile.

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Big Nate: Looks good to SMQ!

4. What do you see as the biggest flaw in the polling system (both wire service and blogpolling)? Is polling an integral part of the great game of college football, or is it an outdated system that needs to be replaced? If you say the latter, enlighten us with your new plan.
The BlogPoll needs two things, both of which have been discussed previously:

a) Its own Web site, and

b) A point-dispersal ranking format.

The first one is most important. Because although the poll is Brian's baby and he does wonderful, yeoman's work with it, it's an open, democratic, public exercise. Separating it from his personal blog - it's a fine blog, don't get SMQ wrong here - would give the poll more legitimacy as its own instituton. SMQ hereby calls for cfbblogpoll.com.

The point dispersal is Brian's own idea from way back, and it entails assigning a certain number points to each team from a pool. That is, you'd have, say, 100 points to distribute across the poll in any combination you'd like. So voters can give teams they feel are even the same number of points rather than have to guess which one should be first in line, and overload teams they feel very strongly about. What if you think 3-10 are all about the same? Now 10 doesn't have to be so far behind. What if there's a gigantic dropoff from 12 to 13? Point assignments can reflect that. It might allow for individuals to rank more than 25 teams, too, if there others they feel worthy, or less, if the bottom few aren't deserving. The results would add nuance, much more closely match voters' actual sentiments, and - less importantly, but still - distinguish the BlogPoll from other polls.

Polling does not need to be replaced, but SMQ is an avid supporter of adopting a playoff. In general, the only flaw with polling as a practice is that it's used to determine the "national champion." SMQ has no problem with the polls coming out to begin the season, because they sort themselves out over the long haul - there's rarely much disagreement in the final polls of the season, except occasionally at the top. Preseason polls are fine. Computers are fine. In fact, SMQ would like to see computers take over altogether, with the caveat that the formulas have to be public and be agreed upon by a huge committee of coaches and other football-smart people. Polls are fun - college basketball does one for no reason, and nobody cares. So do the lower divisions of NCAA football. Polling in and of itself is not the problem; SMQ would not even mind if polls picked the teams who would appear in a playoff. Just not the champion.

Kyle strikes SMQ as a conservative guy, so his defense of the bowl system is not a surprise. It is a surprise that he calls the bowl system "fundamentally American," when no other team sport widely played in America, anywhere, ever, has declared a champion in such a fashion. In fact, employing judges to declare a champion based on their own criteria of performance, i.e. the Olympics, or worse, sharing a championship, is a fundamentally international way of picking a winner, and subject to the same level of politics, vengeance, arbitrary personal tastes and corruption. And it's unscientific - and therefore thoroughly un-American! Except for all the other un-scientific stuff!

Championships must be won directly on the field, not awarded by the arbitrary opinion of a sportswriter or anyone else. It doesn't matter that SMQ almost always agrees with these opinions - they are still opinions, and by definition not suitable for picking a legitimate champion. The pollsters could theoretically vote for Duke - this is not entirely hypothetical - and make Duke the champion, just because. It doesn't matter whether or not they ever would do this; that they can is a fatal indictment to the system.

A playoff would not be difficult within the current postseason structure: at its current five games, the BCS is only two games from being able to accomodate an eight-team (and therefore seven-game) playoff. Two games. That's it. That's the radical change. With an 11-game regular season (although those clearly in the past) and a conference championship, two teams would play 15 games, two other teams would play 14, four others 13. That's at most - and a half-dozen teams are already going to be playing 14 games this year with conference championship games and bowls. By that measure, the overall number of games played is a wash. By adding two games to the system - two games that actually count towards determining a legitimate champion, along with the added importance of the four current non-championship games - ticket sales are boosted, ratings are boosted, interest is boosted. And the champion is fairly-crowned and undisputed.

The thorny issue, aside from determining which bowls host which games, how many and in what order, is deciding the participants. On that level, again, SMQ says the current structure is adequate. The exact BCS formula is open to discussion and tweaking - it should be public, and should be approved by a committee of coaches and other football-smart types - but the idea of using a formula that strives to be objective is a noble one. This is not an exact, um, science, but conjecture over who's number 8 is much better than over who's number 1 or, more often, who's going to play number 1? Nobody's ever disputed a Super Bowl or NCAA basketball championship, or shared one. A playoff is an inherently better system.

Let's also be clear that a playoff would in no way endanger the existence of a single bowl game. Some people seem to believe bowls would disappear entirely, and are mortified by this. Why? How would adding two games to the BCS and converting its format in any way diminish the prestige of the Silicon Valley Bowl? The big money games have already alienated the rest of the system as much as possible, seemingly intentionally so, and to the extent that all pre-New Year's Day bowls are already the equivalent of the NIT in basketball. SMQ loves bowls and says add a whole heap of 'em. Let everybody play in a bowl. It's inconsequential, playoff or not.

Kyle: up for a formal debate some time on this critical subject?

5. You're Scott Bakula, and you have the opportunity to "Quantum Leap" back in time and change any single moment in your team's history. It can be a play on the field, a hiring decision, or your school's founders deciding to build the campus in Northern Indiana, of all godforsaken places. What do you do?
Seriously, everybody knows that Scott Bakula, as Dr. Samuel Beckett, had no control over the destination of his leaps, but OK, whatever...SMQ's "oh boy" moment as it relates to Southern Miss football would be stopping the trainers or whoever from giving Derrick Nix the career-ending kidney poison that nearly killed him to treat a sprained ankle in 2000.

SMQ has no idea what kind of national rep Nix had, but entering his junior season off 1,000-yard efforts his first two years, he was easily the best running back in Conference USA, already one of the best in school history and, with his size and production, a good bet to be a high (at least first day) NFL draft pick down the road. USM was riding pretty high itself that season, coming off its third C-USA title in the league's four-year existence and the highest final poll ranking in school history while finding itself among virtually all of the polls' and magazines' preseason top 20 or 25 lists. After losing a very tight road game to Tennessee - any Southern Miss fan will still argue you down about LeRoy Handy's "failed" two-point conversion catch in the fourth quarter - USM shut out touted Alabama two weeks later and rose up to number 11 in the coaches poll. This is, in retrospect, probably the height of Southern Miss football since it left the pre-I-AA "small college" division.

Meanwhile, Nix is missing a lot more time than expected because of a little ankle injury, and there's a huge drop off to tiny DeWayne Woods. Nobody notices because the team is winning and winning and rising and can't possibly lose to any of the Conference USA peons - remember, Southern's won 14 straight in C-USA at this point and only lost two league games in four and a half seasons, both on the road to eventual champions (Houston, in 1996, was a co-champ with USM; the win was Tulane's toughest in its 12-0 season in 1998) - and Nix actually is in the lineup when a generic Louisville team comes to Hattiesburg for an assured Homecoming beating the first Saturday in November. This is the first home game SMQ attended as a student, and to it the program's rapid and steady descension can be directly traced.

Whether or not a full-strength Nix would have had any power to prevent the out-of-nowhere onslaught the Cardinals layed on Southern that afternoon is debatable. It might have helped - Jeff Kelly threw four interceptions and was sacked seven times, a fate a healthy workhorse could have staved off - but the fact is that a hobbled Nix got seven carries for 12 yards and the legitimately awesome defense had its first meltdown in a couple years. Louisville 49, Southern Miss 28. No-name Dave Ragone and Co. scored 42 points in a little under two quarters.

The mystique Southern Miss carried over the rest of C-USA was wiped out. Immediately. People pay lip service to this in preseason mags - "Southern Miss is always the team to beat in this league, you have to respect what they've done there, etc. etc." - but the one-time sense of superiority has not returned since. Southern subsequently lost two of the its final three, won a dinky bowl game (the first or second Mobile Alabama Bowl) and has failed to get back to eight wins in four of five seasons since - the one team that did get there, the 2003 skin-of-our-teeth league champions, honestly paled in comparison to the 1997 and 1999 champions, and really to the 1998 could-have-beens and 2000 should-have-beens, too. Last year's team, bowl appearance or not, was mediocre on its best day.

And this is where Nix comes in: if he's OK and in the lineup against Louisville, maybe it's a close loss. Maybe there's some shred of dignity that emerges. And most importantly, maybe he plays out the rest of the season, the Eagles win those two losses,and hit double-digit wins. And maybe, instead of missing the entire 2001 season, Nix has a big senior year and the team at least reaches a bowl game, thereby maintaining some semblance of status, some pride in being the for-real "team to beat."

The reason he wasn't in the lineup against Louisville, or the rest of the season, or the entire dismal, 6-5, bowl-less 2001 season? Not the ankle, a week-to-week kind of thing, but rather the medicine for the ankle: one of Nix's kidneys had a major allergic reaction, knocking him off the field for a year and a half - the crucial year and a half, it so happens, that the team went from relative powerhouse to perpetual also-ran. If one of the best players in school history is in the lineup during that span, maybe that slip doesn't happen. Maybe it's delayed a little longer. But the result would have been better with Derrick Nix on the field in those games.

This is certainly scapegoating, copping for the easy explanation, but there is some evidence in the start of the 2002 season just how much Nix, and his mere presence, meant to the team. In his second game back, already named to the school's All-Century Team, Nix singlehandedly carried USM in a win over defending Big Ten champion Illinois, a game in which he vomited in the end zone and passed out after a short early touchdown and later broke off a thrilling, powerful, backbreaking, go-ahead touchdown run from about 60 yards, the kind of play the low, low octane Eagles had not come close to producing in his absence, and the stadium was electric, chanting "Nix! Nix! Nix!" the whole time, over and over, just so completely ecstatic to have him back. SMQ's then-roommate, who had been nervously muttering "He's hurt. Nix is hurt," throughout the tense third quarter, was jumping and down during that run, screaming, shaking SMQ, "HE'S NOT HURT! HE'S NOT HURT!" The offense was nothing without him. Had no identity at all. Still doesn't. He was The Sporting News' national player of the week after that Illinois game, then topped 200 again the next week against Memphis.

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If only he really wasn't hurt

By the end of the year: kaput. Nix was on and off. He missed the devastating Thursday night double-overtime loss to hated Louisville (losses to Louisville were always devastating, in completely new and unique ways each time), pulled up lame in an embrassing flop at TCU and after getting USM into a bowl by rushing for over 100 yards in a win over East Carolina in his last game, the allergy flared up, he dropped a ton of weight, fell almost deathly ill, and eventually had to have a kidney transplant with an organ donated from his brother Tyrone, the former USM linebacker and then-defensive coordinator (now DC at South Carolina) [Commenter says it was his other brother-ed. SMQ believes him]. USM went 7-6, Derrick Nix was forced to drop NFL hopes to become an assistant coach. Ever since, his head has looked so enormous compared to the rest of his once-hulking body, it's hard to deal with.

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7:16 PM

That's one good point for the Quantum Leap treatment, though I am always partial to the icing of the field for the Reggie Collier game against Louisvile in 1981. A win there would have put Southern Miss in the Sugar Bowl.

Also a couple of quibbles. The 1981 season was USM's highpoint since the move up from I-AA.

Second, Derrick Nix got the kidney from his other brother -- not Tyrone.
i agree that the blogpoll needs it's own independent, non-frame based, site. i'm also a fan of the point system. i like the way you think.

p.s. - why don't you have an RSS feed for your site?
Yes, losing to Louisville was always horrible. That's because there was a time where we just didn't lose to them.

I think it was '89 or '90 and Louisville was coming to Hattiesburg for a game. At that point we had beaten them 9 straight times. My roommate was trying to think of a slogan for the game. We asked him to give us an example. He said that when the Steelers were playing for their 5th super bowl, their slogan was "One for the thumb". Someone came up with "One for the other thumb" for the Louisville game. (Okay, I admit it doesn't make sense since there were no rings for the Southern Miss - Louisville game, but it made us laugh. We should have made a sign.)

I'm pretty sure we won that game. Was that the same year that Howard Schenenburger said that Louisville was "on a collision course with the national championship"? (Hilarious at the time.) Or maybe it was the year that after the game Howard blamed Louisville's loss on the "moon over Hattiesburg".

How many different years or games have I confused in this story? I really have no idea.

Good times, man. Good times.
Personally, I've been convinced by Phil Steele's playoff idea.

Four teams, three games. The fourth BCS bowl game gets the two best teams who didn't make the Final Four.

That way we get four elite teams, everyone keeps the bowl, and there's no validity to the "too many games" argument.
I must respectfully disagree with your opinion of Penn State.
How well I remember that Louisville game. The atmosphere on campus was hopping, the team was steadily improving, and several people ahead of us in the poll had lost, virtually assuring us a No. 7 or 8 ranking.

The second half of that game, it was like someone letting the air out of a balloon. With the exception of the 2003 TCU game, it hasn't been filled since.
I will second the respectful disagreement on Penn State. I will be checking in here in 19 days to see what SMQ makes of PSU 2006 team. Would a dominant win over his #1 team on the road change his opinion?
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And don't let the name fool ya - second guessing the phenomenal athletic feats and split-second decisions of college kids under extreme physical duress is for every day of the week.

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