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What's the Matter with Kansas?: Answering MGoBlog

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We interrupt our ongoing efforts to preview comprehensively the Georgia Bulldogs' upcoming contest against the Kentucky Wildcats in order to engage in that activity which forms the cornerstone for the BlogPoll. As The Lawgiver put it:

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.

On Wednesday afternoon, the latest BlogPoll was released and I was declared Mr. Bold and Mr. Manic-Depressive. Brian Cook explained my unique qualifications for these titles in the following manner:
Sometimes Mr. Bold is just a guy with a kind of weird opinion on a team or two. This is not that, though. Dawg Sports submits an [sic.] truly awful ballot: Arizona State plummets to #20. Kansas is #22. Cincinnati is #8. Attempted justifications are here and they are rife with contradictions; suffice it to say when you're the only one ranking either ASU or KU outside of the top ten and you put them in the 20s, you are way off base. I mean, look at the distributions: Kansas and Arizona State. When you can be that thrillingly wrong on two separate teams -- one of whom, ASU, has one loss against the nation's 27th-toughest schedule -- you've turned in a terrible ballot. . . .

Mr. Manic Depressive belongs to Dawg Sports for what I believe is the third time this year. Deranged swings! Woo!

Let us begin by addressing some definitional problems. By "[d]eranged swings," Brian means "dramatic shifts based upon new evidence." By "[a]ttempted justifications," he means "a detailed 32-paragraph team-by-team explanation including citations of won-lost records, margins of victory, and strength of schedule." By "rife with contradictions," he means . . . well, he's got me there; I'm stumped, as Brian did not deign to name any of these alleged discrepancies and inconsistencies, preferring to rely instead on the assertion that, "when you're the only one ranking either ASU or KU outside of the top ten and you put them in the 20s, you are way off base."

Well, someone is way off base, at any rate, but since when did holding the minority opinion automatically make you wrong? I was in the minority when I predicted that Kentucky would beat Louisiana State, but did that make me "way off base"? When the Big Ten bloggers who "hate[d] them some Georgia" were asserting that "you can file the pessimism of the next two voters, both Georgia bloggers, under the heading of 'maybe they know something we don't'" before the Florida game, I stood by the prediction I made in October 2006 and the prediction I reiterated in January 2007 and once again turned out not to be "way off base." Surely Brian would agree that bloggers with a proven track record are entitled to be given some benefit of the doubt based upon the credibility they have built up, wouldn't he? He isn't going to hold my addled-brained prediction that Michigan would win the national title against me, is he?

Let us, however, get down to cases. My ballot---the one Brian characterized as "truly awful" and "terrible"---ranks L.S.U. and Oregon first and second, respectively, placing the Bayou Bengals and the Ducks in exactly the same positions they occupy in the BlogPoll. I ranked Oklahoma, West Virginia, Missouri, Virginia Tech, and Clemson fourth, fifth, sixth, eleventh, and fifteenth, respectively; the BlogPoll ranked those teams third, sixth, fifth, tenth, and fourteenth . . . one spot shy of the spots in which I put them.

In other words, seven of the top 14 teams in the BlogPoll---that would be half---were within one position on my ballot of their spot in the BlogPoll. Two teams in the top 25 were two spots off: Georgia was seventh on my ballot and ninth in the BlogPoll; Connecticut was 23rd on my ballot and 25th in the BlogPoll. Florida (tenth on my ballot, thirteenth in the BlogPoll), Virginia (18th and 15th), and Tennessee (14th and 17th) were within three spots, while Ohio State (3rd and 7th), Boise State (25th and 21st), and Michigan (19th and 23rd) were within four.

Fifteen of the teams in my top 25, therefore, were ranked by me within four poll positions of their BlogPoll placement. Slightly larger separations differentiated such teams as Kentucky (five spots), Illinois (six spots), Boston College (seven spots), and Wisconsin (eight spots). Only three teams which were ranked in the BlogPoll did not appear on my ballot, and each of these was listed among the other teams receiving consideration.

Clearly, there are only differences of degree between my ballot and the BlogPoll, so Brian is quite right when he states that I am not "just a guy with a kind of weird opinion on a team or two." My opinion isn't "weird" (read: different) with respect to "a team or two"; it evidences independent thought with respect to three teams . . . namely, Arizona State, Cincinnati, and Kansas, the only three teams on my ballot with respect to which there is a divergence of greater than eight poll positions between my top 25 and the BlogPoll as a whole.

Hence, when Brian uses the phrase "thrillingly wrong," all he really means---all he really can mean---is "willing to deviate from the conventional wisdom of the A.P. poll." Whether I am wrong (much less "thrillingly" so) to express my view that Kansas is overrated by the sportswriters, the coaches, the computers, and the BlogPollsters alike is not yet known, which is why, when randomterrace expressed with politesse a similar skepticism, I acknowledged that "wins over Missouri and Oklahoma would improve the Jayhawks' position on my ballot dramatically." In the absence of such victories, though, K.U. had little more to recommend it than a record that might well be unblemished because it was attained against bad teams:

[A]s a resume ranker, I am interested in a team's overall body of work, which includes strength of schedule as a primary component.

For instance, I have refused to rank Hawaii because the Warriors have beaten two Division I-AA teams, several bad Division I-A teams (including some really bad Division I-A teams), and only one Division I-A team with as many as six wins.

While Kansas boasts a better record than Hawaii, the 'Hawks simply haven't played many teams that amount to much. That will change, and wins against the Tigers and the Sooners would have a huge positive impact on K.U.'s standing on my ballot, but, right now, they haven't played anyone.

This is partly due to Kansas's Kansas State-like non-conference scheduling and partly due to catching some Big 12 teams at low points (e.g., Colorado, Nebraska, and Texas A&M), but Mark Mangino's team has played the teams it has played and that is all I have to go on in ranking them.

Otherwise, all you're getting is my subjective opinion on who is "better" than whom, and, as my weekly "Don't Bet On It!" picks regularly reaffirm, my guesswork is as full of holes as anyone else's.

The case for Kansas is simple: "They're undefeated!" That was the case for B.Y.U. in 1984, for Georgia Tech in 1990, and for Utah in 2004.

My response is simple: "Yeah, but against whom?" Anyone wishing to change my mind will need to come up with a satisfactory answer to this question. If, by early December, the answer, "Mizzou and O.U., that's who" truthfully may be given, I will have been convinced . . . but not before.

I am hardly alone in adopting such a posture. Sunday Morning Quarterback expressed similar misgivings and LD exposed Kansas's resume for the fraud that it is (with emphasis added by me):
There are 25 teams ranked in the BCS standings. Kansas has played none of them.

There are 34 teams receiving votes in this week's AP poll. Kansas has played none of them.

There are 35 teams receiving votes in this week's USA Today Coaches' Poll. Kansas has played none of them.

There are 36 teams receiving votes in this week's Harris Poll. Kansas has played none of them. . . .

Kansas hasn't played anyone better than around 40th in the nation so far. If you place any importance on their undefeated record, you are necessarily assuming that they would not lose to teams tougher than they have played already. That might be an assumption you would want to make (it's not nice to assume someone would lose). But here's the rub: if another team has lost to teams better than Kansas, it is a reasonable position to take to say that that team can be better than an unbeaten Kansas team. For example, LSU has lost one game, to a decent/good Kentucky team that, by every rating system available, is far superior to anyone on Kansas' schedule. To say Kansas deserves to be rated higher than LSU because they are unbeaten necessarily requires the assumption that Kansas would beat teams better than they have already played such as Kentucky. . . .

In sum, if you are ranking Kansas highly, you must be placing a lot of emphasis on not losing, without regard to how bad or mediocre the opposition is. And if you are placing a lot of emphasis on not losing to bad or mediocre opposition, there are about two dozen other teams who also haven't lost to bad or mediocre opposition (but several of them have played and beaten good or great opposition).

Perhaps you really do think Kansas would beat significantly better opposition than they've faced so far. Perhaps the next couple of weeks will prove such.

But based on the knowledge we have right now of that team, there are reasonable arguments to place the Jayhawks in a poll in the high teens or worse. And if you use resume ranking, there aren't reasonable arguments to place the Jayhawks in the top 3.

LD's excellent exegesis (which you need to read in its entirety if you haven't already) was cited approvingly by other widely respected bloggers, including one who wrote:
Kansas played awful cupcakes in a year when Texas and Oklahoma weren't on their schedule and absolutely should not be rewarded for that; I won't be ranking them over one-loss Oregon or LSU teams that played way, way harder schedules, period.

Not that this matters because they will lose by two touchdowns to Missouri unless there is a flukish outburst of turnovers.

So noted Brian Cook less than three hours before the BlogPoll was posted. My question is simple: "If we take LD at his word, why not take LD at his word?" I can understand and respect Saurian Sagacity's position that the lone remaining undefeated B.C.S. conference team should be ranked No. 1 and LD's wholly outcome-based Lebowski rankings, but, as LD cogently argues, if we're going to rank teams using informed subjectivity, why shouldn't we go all the way? If there are more than 20 teams that are undefeated against teams as good as the best team Kansas has faced, why shouldn't we rank all 20 or more of them higher than unaccomplished Kansas?

How, I wonder, does Brian justify his hardcore opposition to ranking Hawaii at all (a sentiment I share wholeheartedly) if he thinks I'm wrong to rank Kansas in the 20s? If it is fair to criticize the Warriors for getting to 9-0 by beating a 4-6 Louisiana Tech team by one point, why is it unfair to criticize the Jayhawks for getting to 10-0 by beating a 5-5 Kansas State team by six points? If it is fair to criticize Hawaii for beating a 4-6 San Jose State team by a touchdown, why is it unfair to criticize Kansas for beating a 5-6 Colorado team by five points? If it is fair to criticize Hawaii for beating a 6-4 Fresno State squad by seven points, why is it unfair to criticize Kansas for beating a 6-5 Texas A&M squad by eight points?

Obviously, won-lost records notwithstanding, Colorado, Kansas State, and Texas A&M are better teams than Fresno State, Louisiana Tech, and San Jose State. That fact is reflected on my ballot, in that Kansas is ranked and Hawaii is not, but I cannot conscientiously place the Jayhawks in---or anywhere near---the top ten if I am unwilling to include the Warriors in the top 25 at all. As Sunday Morning Quarterback put it:

If there is a theme for the rest of the poll this week, it is to reward big wins and ruthlessly punish mediocrity/the exploitation thereof, and operational target mas grande on that front is Kansas. In retrospect, I was way too kind in my breakdown of the Jayhawks' place at the table Tuesday. When KU beat Kansas State a week after the Wildcats pounded Texas at Texas, that looked like a good, affirming win. When KU won at Colorado when the Buffaloes were 4-3 and only a couple games removed from beating Oklahoma, that looked like a decent win. Texas A&M and Nebraska are usually good, right, or at least talented, and look at that score over Nebraska! And wasn't Oklahoma State making some kind of noise since it switched quarterbacks? Time travel to three weeks ago, a month ago, all of those wins look like justifiable steps to the elite.

Those who would rank the Jayhawks one or two on those merits have left their minds in mid-October. Since losing to Kansas, Kansas State is 2-3 with back-to-back losses to last place Iowa State and hopeless Nebraska, by which the Wildcats were thoroughly shamed by a six-touchdown margin. Colorado has been humiliated by Missouri and, again, last place Iowa State. Since the start of October, lame ducks A&M and Nebraska are a combined 3-9, one of those wins coming against the other. Altogether, even disregarding Kansas' truly atrocious non-conference slate, the six Big 12 teams the Jayhawks have vanquished to date are 14-27 in conference play, and not one of them has a winning record against the rest of the league; only Oklahoma State, at 3-3, so much as breaks even. The only KU opponent above .500 for the season is Texas A&M, which is 6-5, has lost four of its last five by an average of almost three touchdowns and itself has all of one victory over a winning team (6-4 Fresno State, in double overtime). . . .

Kansas has conclusively demonstrated, at best, it's capable of beating a 5-5 team with a 3-3 record in the Big 12, which also lost to Troy, and that it can beat similarly bleh outfits on a consistent basis.

A similar, but less severe, logic applies to Arizona State. Irrespective of Jeff Sagarin's assessment of the Sun Devils' schedule---and, honestly, does anyone not directly beholden to the Bowl Championship Series take Jeff Sagarin seriously, however much they may be willing to use his numbers to suit their purposes?---I don't much respect A.S.U.'s slate.

I would add, by the way, that Colley ranks the Sun Devils' schedule 39th, CBS Sports ranks it 50th, and GBE ranks it 70th, so I am far from alone in being unimpressed with Arizona State's record of six wins over opponents with losing records, one win over a 5-5 team, and victories over two 6-4 teams, particularly in light of the fact that A.S.U. was not competitive in its loss to Oregon. (As Brian pointed out when posting the poll, the Ducks led the Devils 35-16 heading into the fourth quarter.)

As an aside, I should note, as well, that, contrary to Brian's choice of verb, Arizona State did not "plummet" on my ballot. I indicated at the time that I had started over from scratch with a clean white sheet of paper, so the arrows indicating movement on my ballot were meaningless. This, I believe, distinguishes me from the many A.P. voters who start with their preconceptions and move teams up or down based solely on who wins and who loses, without regard to the quality of those wins and losses, which, of course, changes over time.

Finally, Cincinnati earned a big bounce by beating four bowl-eligible opponents, including an eight-win Connecticut squad ranked in the current BlogPoll and a seven-win South Florida squad that presently stands at fourth among the other teams receiving votes. For what it's worth, Miami (Ohio) beat Akron on Wednesday evening, making the RedHawks the fifth bowl-eligible squad to have fallen to the Bearcats.

Reasonable minds may differ upon the proper placement of these and other teams. Brian's and my reasonable minds have differed before, upon previous BlogPoll ballots of mine and upon other subjects about which he later was decisively proven wrong. To characterize my ballot as "truly awful," "rife with contradictions," "way off base," "thrillingly wrong," "terrible," and "[d]eranged," however, is hyperbolic, mistaken, and somewhat silly, and it certainly does not live up to the high standards for discussion and persuasion---"the give-and-take of blogging [that] is critical to the poll"---Brian has done such a superb job of setting and maintaining for the BlogPoll, which he created and which he, through his commitment to consistent excellence, has made one of the blogosphere's most respected collective efforts.

I take pride in being a part of that effort and I put a great deal of time and deliberation into my ballot, which is the product of reason, even if many (or even most) bloggers and readers take issue with my rationale. I always am open to contrary arguments, but I do not confuse subjecting me to a flurry of animadversions with making a persuasive case. Still, for all our evident differences of opinion, Brian at least had the good sense and good taste not to accuse me of failing to shave and shower on consecutive days, for which I remain most humbly appreciative.

Go 'Dawgs!