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Is Michigan Better Than Texas? If So, By How Much?

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The arrival of the new BlogPoll did not bring with it a new No. 1, as Ohio State remains atop the standings, having received 37 first-place votes to second-ranked Louisiana State's 23. The Gators acquired the No. 8 ranking by virtue of their win over No. 14 Kentucky and Georgia checks in at No. 22, trailing No. 15 South Carolina and No. 20 Auburn but climbing one notch to stay ahead of 23rd-ranked Alabama. Tennessee and Troy also received votes.

One thing the new BlogPoll did, though, was generate discussion, as its founder intended:

The difference between this poll and the other polls--and the reason people might care about it--will be the communication between poll voters. Since bloggers have exactly zero credibility compared to AP members and coaches, we have to build our poll in a different mode. It's really important that you as a voter listen to the other voters in the roundtable discussions and the like. If someone provides a convincing argument about a team, please be open minded enough to admit wrongness and change your ballot. What's convincing? Well, that's up to you. Feedback and the give-and-take of blogging is critical to the poll. Be a part of the discussion, and change your mind.

I am arriving rather late to this party, as evidenced by the comment thread at MGoBlog and the comment thread and subsequent posting at Burnt Orange Nation, but the question was an important one and I was one of the webloggers to whom it was addressed, so I feel the need to respond to Peter Bean's questions concerning the divergent rankings given to Michigan and Texas. I apologize for my tardiness, but I hope my reply will make up in thoroughness for what it lacks in promptness.

Better late than never.

Comparing the Longhorns' and the Wolverines' resumes side-by-side, Peter notes that neither has a marquee win, both have plenty of schedule fodder among their victims, and each has a couple of losses. While the Maize and Blue clearly have better wins than the Burnt Orange, the 'Horns have a quality loss in the Red River Shootout (yes, shootout, not rivalry; around these parts, we don't believe in giving in to political correctness where the historic names of our neutral site football games are concerned), whereas the squad from Ann Arbor is hampered by a pair of embarrassing setbacks against Appalachian State and Oregon.

Consequently, Peter reasonably inquires:

One of the distinguishing features of the BlogPoll which gives it the potential to be something special is that dialogue among voters is encouraged. There's nothing inherently wrong with having an opinion which diverges from the opinion of the majority, but voters are encouraged to explain themselves in such cases.

With that in mind - where a voter ranks Texas (or Michigan) this season isn't particularly important to me, but understanding the rationale behind voting patterns always is. So, to the following bloggers, I ask you:

  1. Why the separation between Texas and Michigan?
  2. How does the separation fit with your broader theory of ranking teams?
Reasonable minds can disagree on this stuff, so I don't consider this a call to arms or anything. But a justification may be in order. I'll welcome any responses - from commenters and bloggers alike.

When setting forth his questions, Peter identified ten BlogPoll voters who ranked Michigan and Texas more than six spots apart---three who ranked the 'Horns significantly higher and seven who placed the Wolverines well above U.T.---and my latest ballot was one of the ones cited. My SB Nation colleagues at Conquest Chronicles and Rocky Top Talk both conceded Peter's point and recanted their earlier positions. I, by contrast, stand by my ballot, but I am happy to respond to Peter's reasonable request to learn the reasons why.

First of all, it is not a conference thing. Like Orson Swindle, I swore that I would fight the conference wars no more forever. Both the Big Ten and the Big 12, like the Big East, feature several quality teams, although those leagues as a whole are somewhat uneven. While I believe the Pac-10 and the S.E.C., top to bottom, are the two best conferences in the country---as evidenced by Stanford's win over Southern California, Vanderbilt's win over South Carolina, Mississippi State's win over Auburn, and Mississippi's near-upset of Florida---I am not downgrading either the Longhorns or the Wolverines for their respective league affiliations. In a previous discussion with Peter Bean about ranking methodology, I raised the issue of using conference membership as a ranking criterion, but I generally have found the use of that factor untenable. I'm looking at particular teams' wins, losses, and schedules, not conference affiliations.

While I believe MGoBlog's Brian Cook was overly harsh when he characterized Peter's comparison of the teams' tier two wins as "[p]ure bush-league psychout stuff," it is fair to say that the Longhorns' win over Texas Christian, a 4-4 team from the Mountain West, is not a scalp on a par with the Maize and Blue's victories over Penn State (6-2), Purdue (6-2), and Illinois (5-3) . . . even if T.C.U. beat Baylor by a larger margin than Texas did.

The same goes for the two teams' "filler" wins. Notre Dame has gone 1-7 against a schedule composed of nothing but B.C.S. conference teams, all of which are likely to go to bowl games; Michigan's win over the Fighting Irish, while counting for little, still counts for more than Texas's win over Rice, a 1-6 Conference USA team that has lost to the likes of Baylor, Memphis, and Nicholls State.

I didn't even know that the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura had a university named after her, much less that it had a football team.

Likewise, Michigan's fourth-best win---over Northwestern---came on the road against a Big Ten team with a 5-3 record. That victory represents an achievement substantially superior to the Burnt Orange's second-best win, a three-point escape against a 4-3 Conference USA squad. Overall, the teams Texas has played have posted a combined record of 23-25.

That the Longhorns have faced a non-conference slate of questionable quality is not news. In the 2007 edition of The Eyes of Texas: An Annual Guide to Texas Longhorns Football, which was edited by Peter Bean, Sunday Morning Quarterback's Matt Hinton wrote:

[T]he schedule is likely to do Texas in if it comes down to posturing against a team with a Florida-like resume. Even with the virtually assured strength of Oklahoma, the Longhorns are in the increasingly common position of rooting for all their opponents to succeed, and for every team around UT in the polls to fall by the wayside.

In all likelihood, regardless of the fate of the rest of the Big 12, an undefeated Texas is a championship-bound Texas. But if for some reason that isn't the case---whether because UT loses a game or because more than two contenders make it through the gauntlet unscathed---the best help the 'Horns can have is the greatest possible prosperity of TCU, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas Tech, and, yes, Texas A&M. Of course Texas has to beat them all, but each of those teams probably also needs to be slightly upgraded over 2006 versions to get anywhere near matching the strength of schedule that pushed Florida over the top. For insurance, a breakout season by Nebraska or A&M would boost the intangible "quality win" factor. Otherwise, you can beat them as bad as you like, but Rice, Central Florida, and Arkansas State are only liabilities where a championship is concerned unless there's another heavy to keep the balance from teetering too far in the direction of the cupcakes. Texas doesn't have that in 2007, so there is less room for error.

(Lest any Burnt Orange partisans conclude that I am disparaging the Longhorns' out-of-conference scheduling as a general proposition, I should hasten to add that, in my own contribution to The Eyes of Texas, I analyzed Mack Brown's scheduling tendencies and concluded that, sometimes, "a date with the Ragin' Cajuns or a one-sided rivalry game against Rice is the price a season ticket holder must pay for a win over the Buckeyes in Columbus which springboards a national championship run. As with everything in life, Mack Brown's scheduling is accompanied by opportunity costs, but his deft handling of the complexities of college athletics in the 21st century comes with far more pros than cons.")

If you haven't purchased one already, copies are still in stock!

The best argument for the 'Horns is that they have a quality loss to their credit; namely, a seven-point setback suffered in Dallas at the hands of the Sooners. When a squad's best argument is that it lost more narrowly than expected when facing an upper-echelon team, however, that tainted claimant has veered into the territory previously occupied by Notre Dame in 2005 . . . although, unlike Charlie Weis's inaugural Fighting Irish unit, Texas does not have a victory over a team on a par with Michigan, or even, arguably, Navy.

While the Longhorns certainly get credit for playing O.U. tight, conscientious pollsters (be they sportswriters, coaches, or webloggers) cannot overlook Kansas State's 41-21 smashing of the 'Horns in Austin. Because Oregon is a far, far better team than K.S.U., a 39-7 home loss to the Ducks, while quite bad, isn't nearly as shameful as Texas's loss to the Wildcats.

That just leaves the great albatross around the Wolverines' necks, the setback so shocking that it reduced The Lawgiver to posting pictures of kittens; namely, Michigan's season-opening loss to Appalachian State.

There is no question that the Maize and Blue's historic stumble against the Mountaineers represents a huge blemish on the Wolverines' record. Reaction to the result was swift and severe; Michigan went from being my preseason No. 1 to being unranked on my week one ballot and Lloyd Carr's team did not climb back into my top 25 until week seven.

Don't look at me that way, Lloyd; I ranked your team, all right?

Losing to a Division I-AA team is bad. However, Appalachian State is one of the best teams in Division I-AA, which means the Mountaineers probably are at least as good as any team in the Sun Belt. In a head-to-head matchup on a neutral field on any given Saturday, I would take Appalachian State to beat Arkansas State, a 3-4 team that outgained Texas in the course of falling to the Longhorns by an eight-point margin on Labor Day weekend.

Certainly, losing to a team that's not on your level is substantially worse than almost losing to a team that's not on your level, and I punished Michigan much, much more severely for the Appalachian State game than I punished Texas for the Arkansas State game. (The Longhorns were my preseason No. 3 team and they fell to twelfth on my ballot after their nailbiter against the Indians.)

Looking at their respective records in toto, however, I see one glaring negative for Michigan (the loss to Appalachian State) offset by four positives (the wins over Illinois, Northwestern, Penn State, and Purdue). The Wolverines' loss to Oregon and the Longhorns' loss to Kansas State effectively cancel each other out in the course of any comparisons between Michigan and Texas (although, of course, both losses hurt those two teams in relation to other squads that did not suffer blowout losses); to the extent that we may differentiate between the two, the Maize and Blue ought to be less ashamed of being throttled by the Ducks than the Burnt Orange should be of being manhandled by the Wildcats.

What, though, does Texas have going for it other than the fact that the 'Horns did not lose to Appalachian State? They played poorly enough to lose to Arkansas State and Central Florida; they won unimpressively against a Texas Christian team that has turned out not to be anywhere near as good as advertised; and their biggest plus---a loss to Oklahoma---really amounts to a minus that is ameliorated slightly by the fact that it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Granted, it's not like this happened again or anything.

Texas has nothing that might even remotely be classified as a quality win; Michigan has two fairly solid quality wins and two others that are respectable. For every blowout win over a bad team (by 44 over Rice and by 53 over Iowa State), Texas has a close shave against a bad team (by three over Central Florida and by eight over Arkansas State). 21-point victory margins against the Bears and the Horned Frogs don't compare to a 27-point thumping of the Boilermakers.

Those are the reasons why I ranked these particular teams as I did, and I believe my comprehensive answer to Peter's first question ("Why the separation between Texas and Michigan?") illuminates the answer to his second ("How does the separation fit with your broader theory of ranking teams?"). As an advocate of resume ranking, I believe my most recent ballot dovetails nicely with my approach.

By starting with a clean white sheet of paper last weekend, I avoided assigning disproportionate weight to early September and late October games, as I was looking at the various teams' records as a whole, in the light of what they and their opponents had done through this point. Texas got credit not for what we thought the win over T.C.U. represented at the time, but for what a win over the Horned Frogs represents in the context of Texas Christian's achievement in its entirety. Michigan was dinged not for how its early losses looked when they happened, but for how those setbacks now appear as part of the Wolverines' (and the Wolverines' opponents') entire body of work.

Obviously, as Peter notes, reasonable college football fans can and do disagree upon these points. However, I believe I ranked both the Longhorns and the Wolverines according to their resumes, and, upon that basis, Michigan appeared to me to be a significantly more accomplished team than Texas, despite the fact that I will be compelled to keep track of Appalachian State's postseason progress through the Division I-AA playoffs in order to assess in January 2008 the merits, vel non, of the Maize and Blue's 2007 campaign.

Go 'Dawgs!