Late Saturday afternoon, I posted a draft of my final BlogPoll ballot with a promise to offer a more thorough explanation later. Here now, without further ado, the justification for my rankings:
Let’s start with the question over which I wrestled the most: "Who’s No. 1?" I acknowledged earlier that the Utes had a compelling case to make, so why did I anoint Florida (13-1) rather than Utah (13-0)? Why are Ute fans not saying, "Thank you, Kyle" to me?
There were a lot of similarities between the Mountain West and Southeastern Conference champions. Both won 13 games, one of which was against Division I-AA competition. Each had five wins against teams that finished with more than seven victories: Louisiana State (8-5), Florida State (9-4), Georgia (10-3), Alabama (12-2), and Oklahoma (12-2) for the Gators; Air Force (8-5), Oregon State (9-4), Brigham Young (10-3), Texas Christian (11-2), and Alabama for the Utes.
Florida and Utah each claimed three victims with ten or more victories to their credit, one of which was the Crimson Tide. While the final scores of the S.E.C. championship game and the Sugar Bowl were similar, the games were not. The Gators did to ‘Bama what the Saurians did to the Sooners, playing an even game for the better part of three quarters before pulling away at the end; the Utes did to ‘Bama what the Red Elephants did to the ‘Dawgs, building up a commanding lead early and scoring late to put the game away when the trailing team attempted a furious yet futile comeback.
I apologize profusely for having to use that analogy and I intend to spend the remainder of the offseason expunging from my head every memory I have of Black Saturday.
A closer look at the two contenders’ respective resumes reveals some dents in Utah’s claim that perfection trumps all, however. Florida played eleven teams that made it into postseason play and the Gators’ regular-season opponents went 6-3 in bowl games, whereas the Utes faced six teams that received bowl bids and their regular-season foes posted a 3-2 ledger in postseason play.
The Saurians faced two teams with losing records: Arkansas and Tennessee, each of whom finished one win shy of bowl-eligibility. The Utes crossed paths with six teams that ended up below .500 and five of them carded at least eight losses: New Mexico (4-8), Wyoming (4-8), Michigan (3-9), Utah State (3-9), and San Diego State (2-10). How bad are those five teams? Four of them have hired new head coaches since losing to Utah, and more than a few Maize and Blue fans would like to make it a clean sweep. (Admittedly, this analysis is complicated somewhat by the fact that the Vols, who also axed their head coach, lost to Wyoming, but no team Florida faced had a worse record than Tennessee, while three teams Utah faced had worse records than the Cowboys.)
Despite playing a demonstrably weaker schedule, Utah survived five of its 13 outings by the skin of its teeth, winning by a touchdown or less against the Wolverines, the Falcons, the Beavers, the Lobos, and the Horned Frogs. Florida, in the meantime, made good on Tim Tebow’s tearful promise that he and his team would play harder than anyone for the remainder of the campaign, leading the Gators from defeat through weeping to victory in a manner that cries out to be made into a movie of the week for the Lifetime Network. (Look for Tebow to hype the film with a moist-eyed appearance on "The View.")
Ultimately, I found the gap between Utah’s strength of schedule and Florida’s too much to overlook. The Orange and Blue’s one-point loss to the team that won nine games and beat Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl was a quality loss and the Gators overcame that sole setback with victories over the Bayou Bengals, the Bulldogs, the Seminoles, the Crimson Tide, and the Sooners.
I can only assure the Utah faithful that I am just as sickened by the sight of this man hoisting that trophy while clad in orange and blue as they are.
Just as Florida’s four best wins (over Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida State) were superior to Utah’s best four victories (over Alabama, T.C.U., Oregon State, and B.Y.U.), so too did Texas (12-1) finish ahead of Southern California (12-1), despite the Trojans’ Pac-10 championship, because the Longhorns’ most noteworthy victories (over Oklahoma, Ohio State, Missouri, and Oklahoma State) were more impressive than those posted by the Men of Troy (over Penn State, Ohio State, Oregon, and Cal).
Texas also was helped by a better overall caliber of competition, as only two of the Burnt Orange’s foes finished more than one game below bowl-eligibility (Baylor and Texas A&M, both 4-8) and U.S.C. faced 2-11 Washington State and 0-12 Washington. Moreover, losing a close one to an eleven-win team on the road is better than losing a close one to a nine-win team on the road, so the ‘Horns get more credit for their quality loss.
The Sooners fell no farther than No. 5 after a pair of ten-point neutral-site losses to one-loss teams because O.U. notched victories over Texas Tech, Texas Christian, Missouri, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, and Nebraska. The Red Raiders, who lost to Oklahoma in the regular season but beat the Longhorns, the Cowboys, and the Cornhuskers, clung to a spot in the top six on the strength of their eleven-win season.
Even though Alabama’s only losses were to the top two teams in the country, the Crimson Tide slipped behind the Red Raiders because Texas Tech, despite facing two Division I-AA opponents to the Tide’s none, still managed to beat as many Division I-A teams with winning records as ‘Bama. Only four of the Raiders’ victims finished below .500 and one of those was Kansas State (5-7). While the Tide whipped a trio of 5-7 teams (Arkansas, Auburn, and Tennessee), half of their dozen victories came against squads with losing ledgers, including Tulane and Western Kentucky, both of whom were 2-10.
I swear, I’m not being vindictive about the aforementioned Black Saturday. Well, O.K., maybe just a little, but not much.
The Nittany Lions narrowly beat the Buckeyes during the regular season and Penn State finished one poll position ahead of Ohio State on my ballot. Joe Paterno’s squad was smoked by U.S.C. in Pasadena, but victories over the Big Ten’s and the Pac-10’s respective O.S.U.s earned P.S.U. a No. 8 ranking. Quality losses to the Lions and the Longhorns bolstered the case for a Buckeye squad whose most noteworthy victim was Michigan State.
The Horned Frogs’ victory over B.Y.U. only counts for so much, but eleven-win T.C.U. earned points for a quality loss at Utah and a quality win over the Boise State club that checked in at No. 11. Although the Broncos beat three teams with records of 3-9 or worse, those were the only three teams B.S.U. beat with ledgers below .500 and a road win over ten-win Oregon gave Boise State’s resume a boost.
Wins over Georgia Tech, Cincinnati, and Nebraska provided some heft to the record of achievement posted by A.C.C. champion Virginia Tech. The Hokies also were helped by the fact that three of their four losses were to nine-win teams, three of their four losses were close contests, and all four of their four losses came on the road.
At that point, frankly, it starts to get a little murky, diluted, and wholly unsatisfactory. Ten-win Georgia slipped past ten-win Missouri because the two teams had comparable losses---Alabama, Florida, and Georgia Tech combined to go 34-7; Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas together went 33-7---but the Tigers had one more of them, to 8-5 Kansas.
At last! A mention of something positive for Georgia! We’ll just pretend that nothing that happened after this moment happened and forget all about any press conferences or national championship games or such as that. . . . (Photograph by John Raoux.)
Only one team in the country recorded two wins over teams ranked in my top six, and that team was Ole Miss. Unfortunately, Florida and Texas Tech were two of only three teams with winning records beaten by the Rebels. (The other was L.S.U., which finished at 8-5.) Granted, three of Mississippi’s five victims with losing ledgers won either five or six games, and the Rebs’ four setbacks all were sustained by a touchdown or less, but losses to South Carolina (7-6), Vanderbilt (7-6), and Wake Forest (8-5) had lost much of their luster by season’s end, so Ole Miss only made it as high as No. 15.
The Ducks had much the same problem as the Rebels, boasting quality wins over the Big 12’s and the Pac-10’s respective O.S.U.s but recording all but one of their remaining victories against teams with losing records. In fact, half of Oregon’s wins were over opponents with eight or more losses in their ledgers. While the Beavers did a little better in terms of the quality of their competition, their head-to-head loss in the Battle of the Webbed Feet and their poor performances at Stanford and at Penn State caused Oregon State to land behind their in-state rivals.
The Yellow Jackets claimed two quality victories (over Florida State and Georgia) but they also lost to a Virginia team with a losing record and were not competitive in losses to a pair of 8-5 teams, North Carolina and L.S.U. The Bearcats got as much traction as they could get from their Big East title and their eleven wins, but five of their ten wins over Division I-A opposition came in nailbiters and none of their three losses were competitive.
The Golden Bears didn’t do a whole lot to get to 9-4. Only two of their victims finished with records better than 7-6, but, then again, only three of the teams they defeated finished with records worse than 5-7. Not one of the four games Cal lost was a close contest, but all of those setbacks came on the road and the Bears beat nine-win Michigan State and ten-win Oregon, which was more than could be claimed by the fellow 9-4 teams that followed them.
The University of California at Berkeley also received extra credit for having conformed most closely to popular stereotypes about the institution in this ever-changing world in which we live.
Among the aforementioned 9-4 teams that trailed California were Pittsburgh, Florida State, Oklahoma State, Michigan State, and Iowa, who finished ranked 21st through 25th on my ballot. The Panthers were first among equals by virtue of six victories over teams with records better than 7-6, including moderately marquee wins over the Hawkeyes and the Mountaineers. The Seminoles likewise edged out the Cowboys because F.S.U.’s best win (over the Hokies) marginally surpassed the Pokes’ best win (over Mizzou). The Spartans were buoyed by the caliber of the competition to whom they lost---Cal, Georgia, Ohio State, and Penn State all won nine or more games and only one of them faced M.S.U. in East Lansing---and the fact that they beat Iowa head-to-head.
The Hawkeyes earned the final spot in my top 25 on the strength of their win over the Nittany Lions. Granted, that was their only victory over a team with better than a 7-6 record, but, on the other hand, Iowa’s four losses all were by a touchdown or less. Three of those setbacks came on the road and three were to opponents that finished with 9-4 ledgers.
That gave the Hawkeyes more on which to hang their hats than the resumes compiled by Tulsa (11-3), Nebraska (9-4), West Virginia (9-4), Rice (10-3), Northwestern (9-4), Ball State (12-2), B.Y.U. (10-3), and Western Michigan (9-4), who finished as my de facto 26th through 33rd teams. (No team with five or more losses was considered, although, if they had been, I’m sure squads such as, e.g., L.S.U. would have finished higher than many of those teams.)
The Golden Hurricane, the Cornhuskers, the Mountaineers, the Owls, the Cardinals, the Cougars, and the Broncos all made it through the season without beating a team ranked in my final top 25. The Wildcats’ narrow victory at Iowa was offset by Northwestern’s narrow loss at Indiana. The Hoosiers finished 3-9 . . . and the ‘Cats barely got by four-win Duke and three-win Michigan on the road.
As for what I watched, it’s easier to tell you which parts of the postseason I didn’t watch. If it wasn’t on while I was at work and if it wasn’t broadcast on the N.F.L. Network, I certainly saw at least some of it, most likely saw much of it, and quite probably saw every bit of it, provided it wasn’t on opposite a game in which I was more interested.
For instance, I didn’t see much of the Clemson-Nebraska game because the Gator Bowl was on at the same time as the Capital One Bowl. (By the way . . . conference tie-ins be damned, wouldn’t a Nebraska-Michigan State game in Orlando and a Clemson-Georgia game in Jacksonville have made infinitely more sense as New Year’s Day affairs? The ability to renew a storied rivalry would have taken some of the sting out of this sorry season, and the Bulldogs and the Tigers could have commiserated considerably, as both expected to contend for a national title, neither even won its division, and each found Alabama a tougher opponent than anticipated.)
As always, I call ‘em like I see ‘em and try to offer you as rational an explanation as I can. I welcome your feedback, questions, and constructive criticisms before the final BlogPoll is posted and I remain open to compelling arguments in favor of a position contrary to the one I have taken.
Now, please, let’s forget this dreary catastrophe of an accursed football season ever happened and move forward as if it never occurred.