(Note: As of this writing, technical difficulties with the BlogPoll voting mechanism have prevented me from casting my actual ballot, which I shall make every effort to do in a timely manner. Due to the unfortunate possibility that I will be unable to get my ballot in on time, however, I have elected to post the details of what my ballot will look like, irrespective of whether I am able actually to submit it before the deadline.)
Francis P. Canavan, Freedom of Expression (1984)
"I make no secret of the ways in which I love this game and I believe that I share a common bond with all those who feel similarly, even if they are partisans of different teams. Unless he happens to do something unconscionable (like, say, rooting for Auburn, which is the Ohio State of the Plains), a devoted fan of another school is all right in my book.
"Brian is such a fan; his pride in his University of Michigan degrees and his passion for the Maize and Blue match and mirror my own in my University of Georgia degrees and for the Red and Black. As kindred spirits, we and those like us on both sides of the aisle should be able to interact with civility, even when we disagree. The large areas of common ground that we share should be more evident and open to exploration."
Despite my best efforts to explain the more unconventional aspects of my ballot last week, my attempt, to put it delicately, did not help me to win friends and influence people, which I profoundly regret. (I do, however, appreciate such shows of support as I received.)
As I hope was, but I fear was not, clear, my use of references to the number of teams with winning records or losing records that a particular squad has beaten represents a shorthand way of referring to a team's strength of schedule and is not indicative of any inability on my part to distinguish between a win over 1-11 Idaho and a win over 5-7 Miami (Florida), or between a win over 7-5 Texas A&M and a win over 11-1 Ohio State. It should be noted that I often, if not always, make specific reference to particular opponents a team has faced. As evidenced by the fact that different computer models assign divergent strength of schedule rankings to particular squads, these are matters about which reasonable people---or even reasonable computers---can and do disagree.
All right, enough with the preliminaries; let's get down to ranking the teams before this thing gets so long that no one will actually read it!
While the latest round of upsets over the holiday weekend helped to clarify the picture somewhat, I thought it was a bit of a stretch coming up with 25 rankable teams this week. You will note that there is no "others receiving consideration" paragraph at the end of this posting; this is because I was unable to come up with a 26th team deserving of a long enough look to qualify.
Accordingly, if your primary objection to my top 25 is that only 16 or 17 of these teams genuinely deserve to be ranked, all I know to tell you is that you're right, but the rules are what they are, so this is the ballot I submitted in good faith, not in an effort to be an odd outlier, but in an honest attempt to arrive at a top 25 using a rationale other than "the Associated Press told me so":
- West Virginia
- Ohio State
- Louisiana State
- Virginia Tech
- Southern California
- Boston College
- Arizona State
- South Florida
- Brigham Young
- Boise State
At this point, I take it as a given that only three teams genuinely are contenders for the No. 1 ranking: Missouri (11-1), West Virginia (10-1), and Ohio State (11-1). I ranked them in that order for these reasons:
- The Tigers have two wins over teams ranked in last week's BlogPoll: No. 2 Kansas and No. 15 Illinois, both of which Mizzou beat at neutral sites. Missouri also defeated Texas Tech, which checked in as the BlogPoll's de facto No. 26 team last week. The Mountaineers have two wins over teams ranked in last week's BlogPoll: No. 20 Connecticut and No. 23 Cincinnati, one of which W.V.U. beat on the road. The Buckeyes have one win over a team ranked in last week's BlogPoll: No. 22 Wisconsin, which O.S.U. beat at home. Clearly, the Tigers have the edge in quality victories.
- Related to the foregoing is the fact that Missouri clearly scheduled what turned out to be the toughest non-conference opponent of the bunch, as the Tigers played a neutral site game against the same Illinois team that beat Ohio State in Columbus. Meanwhile, West Virginia's best out-of-conference victory was a home hammering of Mississippi State (7-5) and the Buckeyes possess no meaningful pelts outside of Big Ten play, having beaten Akron (4-8), Kent State (3-9), Washington (4-8), and Division I-AA Youngstown State.
- Generally, the worst teams Mizzou beat weren't as bad as the worst teams the other two contenders defeated. The Tigers' victims included five Division I-A teams with losing records, but three of those opponents finished with 5-7 records, falling just shy of bowl eligibility. The four teams with losing records beaten by the Mountaineers included a two-win Syracuse squad and a three-win Marshall club. In addition to the aforementioned Golden Flashes, Huskies, and Zips, O.S.U. also chalked up a win against a woeful Minnesota team that finished 1-11.
- Finally, Missouri's was the most respectable loss in the bunch. The Tigers' loss to the Sooners, the Mountaineers' loss to the Bulls, and the Buckeyes' loss to the Fighting Illini all were by respectable margins, but Mizzou fell on the road against an Oklahoma squad ranked No. 10 in last week's BlogPoll, whereas W.V.U. lost on the road to a U.S.F. team ranked No. 24 in last week's BlogPoll and O.S.U. lost at home to an Illinois unit ranked No. 15 in last week's BlogPoll.
I hesitated momentarily before awarding Oklahoma (10-2) the No. 5 ranking because the Sooners' ten wins included empty victories over the likes of Baylor (3-9), Iowa State (3-9), North Texas (2-9), and Utah State (2-10). However, O.U. was buoyed by a quality win over Missouri and respectable victories over a pair of 9-3 clubs in Texas and Tulsa. Like L.S.U., Bob Stoops's squad suffered two losses which were ameliorated by being close contests in conference games played on the road against bowl-eligible opposition. The setback suffered in Lubbock against eight-win Texas Tech was respectable and the ignominy of falling to six-win Colorado was made slightly less egregious by the Buffaloes' trouncing of Nebraska, which was only marginally less impressive than the Jayhawks' win over the Cornhuskers.
We now move into the how-can-I-be-The-Man-when-Mark-Richt-is-The-Man? portion of our program.
By contrast, the home loss suffered by Georgia (10-2) in a tight game against a South Carolina squad that stumbled to a 6-6 finish has not aged well, in spite of the extenuating circumstances surrounding Jasper Brinkley's season-ending injury. The Bulldogs' loss to Tennessee appears only incrementally improved in retrospect, as the Volunteers thumped the Red and Black and only got to nine wins because the Gamecocks, the Commodores, and the Wildcats all proved incapable of kicking game-winning field goals against the Big Orange. Moreover, the Bulldogs' season-opening win over Oklahoma State was less dominant than the Sooners' season-ending win over the Cowboys and O.U. got a boost by earning the right to represent its division in its conference championship game.
Nevertheless, the 'Dawgs defeated seven bowl-eligible opponents and another squad (Vanderbilt) that fell one win shy of the possibility of postseason play. Georgia recorded quality victories over Auburn and Florida, in addition to beating seven-win Georgia Tech and Kentucky squads as part of an impressive stretch run.
This weekend's win over cross-commonwealth rival Virginia gave Virginia Tech (10-2) its second road victory over a nine-win conference opponent and its sixth win of the season against a bowl-eligible team. Although the Hokies were dragged down by games against Division I-AA William & Mary and one-win Duke, V.P.I.'s only losses were to ten-win teams.
A Thanksgiving night road win over Arizona State enabled Southern California (9-2) to reclaim a spot in the top ten. Six of the Trojans' victories came against opponents with losing records, but three of those squads were within one win of bowl eligibility. U.S.C. now has a quality victory over A.S.U. to accompany its previous best win against Oregon State, which helps to make up for an embarrassing home loss to a Stanford squad that stumbled to a 3-8 finish.
I'm going to be honest with you, Pete . . . this did not help your case.
Come-from-behind conference road victories over Clemson and Virginia Tech bolstered the case for Boston College (10-2) to receive a No. 9 ranking. The Eagles have five wins over bowl-eligible opponents and two others over teams that came within one victory of qualifying for bowl berths. B.C.'s losses to Florida State and Maryland are not particularly forgivable, although both the Seminoles and the Terrapins finished at .500 or above, if only barely so.
The No. 10 ranking devolved upon Arizona State (9-2). Even though the Sun Devils' second- and third-best wins were over a pair of 6-5 squads (Cal and U.C.L.A.), Dennis Erickson's charges defeated four bowl-eligible opponents and two others with 5-7 ledgers, registering a win over Oregon State in the process. While neither of A.S.U.'s losses was close, the Sun Devils fell to eight-win Oregon and nine-win Southern California while those teams were fully healthy.
The best of the thrice-beaten teams was Florida (9-3), as the Gators' only setbacks included two close contests, two games played outside of Gainesville, and two outings against ten-win teams. Only one of the Orange and Blue's Division I-A opponents finished with a record worse than 5-7 and six of the Saurians' victories were over bowl-eligible opposition. Florida recorded a quality win over Tennessee.
The Gators narrowly edged out Illinois (9-3) for the No. 11 ranking. The Fighting Illini were like Florida in many ways: both teams went 9-3; both teams defeated a Division I-AA team (yes, I'm treating provisional Division I-A member Western Kentucky as a lower-division team) and two Division I-A teams with losing records; both teams beat one .500 team and five teams with winning records. I differentiated between the two based upon a variety of factors:
- Florida's only truly bad Division I-A win was a close call against Ole Miss (3-9) in Oxford. Illinois compiled a resume that included road wins over Minnesota (1-11) and Syracuse (2-10).
- The Illini scraped by in every one of their meaningful wins, edging Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin by margins of a touchdown or less. The Gators claimed their best victory by throttling Tennessee.
- Illinois, like Florida, lost once on the road, once at home, and once at a neutral site. Both teams played a pair of nailbiters in their respective three losses. Even assuming for the sake of argument the debatable proposition that the Illini's best loss (by six points to Missouri in St. Louis) was better than the Gators' (by four points to L.S.U. in Baton Rouge), the two teams' other losses are not comparable. Losing a low-scoring affair by three to eight-win Auburn is more impressive than losing a low-scoring affair by four to six-win Iowa and losing by a double-digit margin to ten-win Georgia is significantly superior to losing by a double-digit margin to eight-win Michigan in a game neither team seemed interested in winning.
The propriety, vel non, of my placement of Florida and Illinois relative to one another almost assuredly will be made clear in the Sunshine State on New Year's Day in what inevitably will be known as "the Zook Bowl."
The loss to the Gators is the only one of the three road setbacks suffered by Tennessee (9-3) that looks like anything less than a complete embarrassment, in light of California's and Alabama's subsequent collapses, but the Volunteers have beaten only one team that finished with a record worse than 5-7 and six of the Big Orange's nine victories have come against bowl-eligible opponents, including seven-win Kentucky, eight-win Arkansas, and ten-win Georgia.
These quality victories (particularly the last one) gave Tennessee the edge over South Florida (9-3), which arrived at an identical record with a trio of close losses to teams that all have seven or more wins. The Bulls, however, earned four of their wins against Division I-AA Elon, North Carolina (4-8), Pitt (4-7), and Syracuse (2-10) . . . and even that is giving U.S.F. partial credit for victories over five-win Louisville and six-win Florida Atlantic. Quality wins over Auburn and West Virginia, plus a largely though not entirely meaningless win over nine-win Central Florida, got South Florida into the top 15 in this diluted field.
There were good reasons not to rank the Bulls ahead of Clemson (9-3). Two of the Tigers' losses came against ten-win teams and seven of Clemson's eight Division I-A victories were over teams with ledgers of 5-7 or better, including six opponents that are bowl eligible. Nevertheless, Tommy Bowden's team was unable to overtake U.S.F. because the Tigers were not competitive in losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, nor did they record more than one win against a team with more than seven victories. When a win over Wake Forest represents a team's best victory---and by a sizable margin, at that---I cannot conscientiously rank that team higher than No. 15.
I struggled with what to do with Oregon (8-3). Clearly, in the absence of Dennis Dixon, the Ducks simply are not a good football team. Based on who they are right now, they are not a top 25 team. Nevertheless, we must give the Ducks credit for what they have done, in spite of the exceedingly low likelihood that they will be able to duplicate their past success. Oregon was dragged down by losses to five-win Arizona, six-win California, and six-win U.C.L.A., but the Ducks' plummet was halted by victories over five teams with winning records, including eight-win Michigan, nine-win Arizona State, and nine-win Southern California. Regrettably, I do not expect Oregon to remain ranked one week from now.
I feel badly enough for the Ducks that I'm not even going to make fun of their uniforms.
A few eyebrows may have been raised by my placement of Kansas (11-1) at No. 17, four spots higher than I ranked the Jayhawks on last week's ballot. I have argued vehemently against K.U. and I agree that my position was vindicated by the result in Arrowhead Stadium. (As The Lawgiver eloquently put it: "Please note Secret Axiom Of Football #27: 'If it ends with an unrecovered onside kick, it wasn't that close.'")
All right, so the Jayhawks haven't beaten a team with more than seven victories. O.K., so nine of K.U.'s eleven wins were over Division I-AA teams or Division I-A teams at or below .500, including the likes of Baylor (3-9), Iowa State (3-9), and Florida International (0-11).
Even so, though, Kansas beat four bowl-eligible teams and three others that came within one win of qualifying for postseason play. Among the Jayhawks' victims were a Colorado squad that beat Oklahoma, an Oklahoma State squad that beat Texas Tech, and Kansas State and Texas A&M squads that beat Texas, so it's almost as if Mark Mangino's squad beat some good teams, albeit at one remove. (Consider that "something akin to an extra [sic.] quality win.")
That, plus a respectable showing in the fourth quarter after trailing Mizzou by a 28-7 margin, got Kansas the benefit of the doubt, even in the face of what proved to be my (and not just my) well-founded reservations about K.U. We will see whether my fellow BlogPollsters meet me halfway after their generous overestimation of the Jayhawks was exposed as erroneous, but it appears clear from here that, now that everyone's up to date in Kansas City, the 'Hawks have gone about as far as they can go.
Yeah, I included a musical theatre reference. You want to make something of it?
The No. 18 ranking fell to Wisconsin (9-3) because, frankly, the pickings were getting a little slim. The best part of the Badgers' resume is on the right-hand side of their ledger, where we find road losses to conference opponents with eight, nine, and eleven wins, respectively.
Among the victories, well, there isn't much: Wiscy won close contests over teams that finished with records of 7-5 (Michigan State), 6-6 (Iowa), 2-10 (U.N.L.V.), and 1-11 (Minnesota). In the five games won by the Badgers by more than a seven-point margin, Wisconsin defeated a 2-10 M.A.C. team (Northern Illinois) and a Division I-AA team (The Citadel), leaving only victories over Washington State (5-7), Indiana (7-5), and, most notably, Michigan (8-4) in a game in which the Wolverines sat their starters in preparation for Ohio State.
That is thin gruel, indeed, but it is better than what Cincinnati (9-3) had to offer. The Bearcats boast wins over nine-win Connecticut and South Florida squads, plus an impressive out-of-conference outing against Oregon State, but Cincy's three losses, while all close, included setbacks against two teams (Louisville and Pittsburgh) with losing ledgers. Matters were not helped by victories over San Diego State (4-7), Marshall (3-9), Syracuse (2-10), or Division I-AA Southeast Missouri State.
The final entrant into the top 20 was Virginia (9-3), which, like the Badgers and the Bearcats, possesses a sparkling nine-win ledger that does not withstand close scrutiny. Even though the Cavaliers eschewed playing a Division I-AA opponent, the Wahoos' best wins were over Connecticut and Wake Forest. Two of Virginia's losses came on the road against 5-7 squads and six of the Hoos' wins were by the narrowest of margins against a questionable schedule.
The Sage of Monticello may have authored the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, but no one ever said he founded a university with a top-tier football program.
Just as the Jayhawks were upwardly mobile on my ballot, so, too, did Hawaii (11-0) make the leap from No. 24 to No. 21. The Warriors' resume continues to inch incrementally in the direction of respectability. Granted, Hawaii's unblemished ledger remains hampered by the fact that June Jones's squad attained its unbeaten stature against two Division I-AA teams (Charleston Southern and Northern Colorado), one one-win team (Idaho), and two two-win teams (U.N.L.V. and Utah State); however, the Warriors have beaten two teams with winning records (Boise State and Fresno State, the latter of which beat Kansas State by 16 points and lost to Texas A&M by two points in triple overtime in College Station, thereby raising the question whether Hawaii ought to get the same sort of derivative beat-a-team-that-beat-a-team-that-beat-a-good-team bump by which Kansas's paltry resume is bolstered?) and three others within one win of bowl eligibility (Louisiana Tech, Nevada, and San Jose State). That ain't good, but it's getting there . . . if, by "getting there," you mean "in the lower reaches of the top 25" and not "on the verge of earning a B.C.S. bowl bid."
As before, the best four-loss team in the country is Auburn (8-4). The Plainsmen have beaten five teams with records of 5-7 or better and have posted road wins over eight-win Arkansas and nine-win Florida. Furthermore, each of the Tigers' quartet of setbacks appears respectable, as the War Eagle went down to seven-win Mississippi State in a close contest, nine-win South Florida in a close contest, ten-win Louisiana State in a close contest on the road, and ten-win Georgia on the road in as energized a game day atmosphere as I have ever seen in Sanford Stadium.
With Friday's loss in College Station, Texas (9-3) confirmed that Longhorn football is mediocre this year. The Burnt Orange's only win of reasonable quality came at home against eight-win Texas Tech; after that, it's a bit of a stretch to call a narrow escape against a nine-win Central Florida squad a good victory. Although the 'Horns beat six squads at or within one game of bowl eligibility, Mack Brown's crew also beautified its won-lost record by beating a trio of 3-9 teams (Baylor, Iowa State, and Rice). Texas can claim a quality loss to Oklahoma in Dallas, but the setback suffered at the hands of five-win Kansas State looks bad.
Left with room at the bottom of my ballot, I went with Brigham Young (9-2) because the Cougars have beaten seven-win Texas Christian, eight-win New Mexico, eight-win Utah, and nine-win Air Force. B.Y.U. also tacked on victories over Arizona and Wyoming, each of which is within one win of bowl eligibility, and the Cougs' two losses were road outings against bowl-eligible out-of-conference opponents, including one from a B.C.S. conference.
Chris Petersen anxiously awaits the announcement of the No. 25 team in the hope that his Broncos will be ranked on the Dawg Sports BlogPoll ballot.
The last spot in my top 25 went to Boise State (10-2). The Broncos' only truly bad wins were over Idaho (1-11), Utah State (2-10), and Division I-AA Weber State, but B.S.U. has beaten Fresno State (7-4), Southern Mississippi (7-5), and four other opponents that are one win shy of qualifying to participate in the postseason. Both of Boise State's losses came in road games, with one occurring on the home field of a B.C.S. conference squad and the other taking place in the stadium of an undefeated conference opponent. That counts for something, particularly in a season as topsy-turvy as this one has been.
I watched the second half of the Middle Tennessee-Troy game on Tuesday and the entirety of the Arizona State-Southern California game on Thursday. On Friday, I began with the Colorado-Nebraska tilt as my primary game and had the Arkansas-Louisiana State showdown as the flipback, then I made the S.E.C. West battle my major focus and made the Texas-Texas A&M game my flipback contest. I watched the Boise State-Hawaii game until seasonal sinus problems and holiday overeating got the better of my conscious mind.
On Saturday, I watched the first half of the Kentucky-Tennessee game and caught the last five minutes of the Virginia-Virginia Tech tilt before devoting the whole of my attentions to the Georgia-Georgia Tech showdown. After the Red and Black claimed their seventh straight series victory over the Yellow Jackets, I flipped back and forth between the Alabama-Auburn and Kansas-Missouri games.
I apologize for the length of the foregoing, which was not intended as a gargantuan posting having little meat behind it or as a blizzard of words that no one has the time actually to read, but I wanted to make certain my explanations were thorough and painstaking, so that none of them would be mistaken for ad hoc justifications which fail to state specific reasons for placing particular teams above other teams in the same vicinity.
I am hopeful that my rationale might be judged, even by those who disagree with it, as one that at least approaches rigorousness; likewise, I would like to think that my ballot might be given credit for being something more than mere weirdness offered for the pleasure (if that term fairly might be applied to the experience of being excoriated publicly for one's unpopular independence of thought) of being an outlier. Your own independent judgments, including questions and constructive criticisms, are, as always, most welcome in the comments below.