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We Can Work It Out, We Can Work It Out

I awoke this morning to the following realization:  Georgia has played its last sporting event until the fall.  

There is no more college baseball to occupy Bulldog Nation's attention, so we are left gazing across a vast and empty desert that we have no choice but to cross.  Ergo, like Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia," I begin the trek over an expanse seemingly too wide to traverse, confident that, if we stay the course, we will reach our destination . . . football season!

Artist's rendering of the offseason.

Mercifully, College Football Resource has offered a new topic for debate . . . or, rather, an old topic framed in a new way.  

C.F.R. tackles the issue of "scheduling parity," characterizing a league's "number of bowl appearances and inflated records" as "old crutches" to use "to evaluate conferences and their members."  The thrust of his argument is that one cannot, for instance, "engage in a Pac-10 vs. SEC argument" without making allowances for the two leagues' scheduling practices.  

If two teams go 10-2, but one of them plays a more difficult schedule than the other, the team that went 10-2 against a tougher slate accomplished more than the team that went 10-2 against weaker competition.  Likewise, if one conference produces more bowl-eligible teams than another, but the league that had more squads qualify for postseason play consistently scheduled patsy opponents outside of conference play, the mere fact that a larger number of member institutions went bowling may give a skewed picture of the conference's overall merit.  

None of that, of course, has any particular bearing on whether any team would beat any other team on any given day.  Hence, last year's Oklahoma team (which went 7-4 against a supposedly suspect Big 12) took on an ostensibly superior Oregon team (which went 10-1 against an apparently solid Pac-10) in a bowl game . . . and the Sooners won.  In football, the proper response to the statement, "I'm better than you" is:  "You'd better be wearing your jockstrap and your chinstrap when you say that."  

Part of the problem is that such determinations as these are inherently subjective, as judgments must be made regarding what weight is to be given to which objective criteria.  Certainly, strength of schedule is a criterion to be considered, but it is not the be-all and end-all.  A B.C.S. conference's success against, say, the Sun Belt ought not to count for as much as that league's wins against perennial powerhouses, but such games simply deny the observer the opportunity to evaluate a team (or a conference) fairly . . . effectively, they are zeroes, offering no evidence either for or against the squad that played an overmatched opponent.  You can discount the win, but you can't discount the team for the win.  

It isn't as though beating these guys 42-7 means you're not good.

At the core of this question, of course, lie S.E.C. teams' out-of-conference schedules, which recently have improved and evidently will continue to do so as we in the Southeast persist in agitating for better non-conference opponents.  In the meantime, though, the poll voters seem capable of doing the math on this one.  

The most conspicuous example of this, of course, is 2004, when S.E.C. champion Auburn, Big 12 champion Oklahoma, and Pac-10 champion Southern California all carried 12-0 records into the bowl season.  Although five Southeastern Conference squads would be ranked in that year's final postseason coaches' poll, the Plainsmen benefited from no bias, as the Tigers' out-of-conference slate doomed Auburn's chances for making it into the Orange Bowl.  

The War Eagle went 9-0 against opponents from B.C.S. leagues, but a non-conference schedule consisting of The Citadel, Louisiana-Monroe, and Louisiana Tech torpedoed the Tigers.  The Sooners were 10-0 against major conference competition, having taken on a non-Big 12 slate made up of Bowling Green, Houston, and Oregon, while the Trojans posted a 10-0 ledger against Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, and eight Pac-10 opponents while also getting by B.Y.U. and Colorado State.  

U.S.C. played an eight-game conference schedule, defeated both the Fighting Irish and the Hokies, and came into the postseason ranked No. 1.  O.U. played an eight-game regular-season conference schedule, defeated the Ducks, won the Big 12 championship game, and came into the postseason ranked No. 2.  A.U. played an eight-game regular-season conference schedule, won the S.E.C. championship game, played substandard non-conference competition, came into the postseason ranked No. 3, and was left on the outside looking in when it came time to select the participants for the Orange Bowl.  

In 2004, Auburn defeated a Georgia team that went 8-2 against B.C.S. conference teams and won a January bowl game, an L.S.U. team that went 7-3 against B.C.S. conference teams and lost a January bowl game on a last-second miracle T.D., a Tennessee team (twice) that went 8-3 against B.C.S. conference teams (counting Notre Dame) and won a January bowl game, and a Virginia Tech team that went 8-3 against B.C.S. conference teams and lost a January bowl game by a field goal . . . yet, despite beating four teams that, between them, went 7-3 against the likes of Georgia Tech, Iowa, Miami, Notre Dame, Oregon State, Southern California, Texas A&M, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, Auburn was left out of the big dance because a scared Division I-A opponent canceled at the last minute and left the Plainsmen scrambling to schedule The Citadel in its place.  Where, precisely, is the bias that supposedly rewards Southeastern Conference squads for playing schedule fodder from Division I-AA, the Sun Belt, and the W.A.C.?  

Am I actually defending Auburn?  Ugh, I think I am going to be ill. . . .

Furthermore, the distinction between lower-tier B.C.S. conference squads and upper-echelon mid-major teams often is a bogus one.  Georgia opened the 2005 season against Boise State, a team from a non-B.C.S. league that had posted three straight top 15 finishes.  Did the Bulldogs deserve less credit for beating the Broncos than, say, Michigan will get for beating S.E.C. member Vanderbilt on September 2?  

The point is that there are a myriad of criteria for evaluating such questions as which is the better of two teams and which is the better of two conferences.  No one disputes that a win over Notre Dame typically counts for more than a win over a mid-major opponent . . . although there have been seasons---the aforementioned 2004 campaign certainly was one of them; 2005 arguably was another---in which the Fighting Irish were not as good as the best of the mid-major teams.  

William Faulkner once declared that writing a novel was like nailing together a henhouse in a hurricane.  Evaluating the relative merits of college football squads and leagues often is like that.  We may choose to use a variety of criteria for making such determinations, but, ultimately, these are subjective judgments about which people can and do disagree . . . and this is one of college football's greatest strengths.  

Go 'Dawgs!