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Kansas?!?!: A Pre-Emptive Strike in Defense of My BlogPoll Ballot

The new BlogPoll is scheduled to be released tomorrow and my ballot once again may draw the same stern rebuke to which I was subjected after last week's ballot, because I (with all due respect to my SB Nation colleague at Rock Chalk Talk) believe Kansas has demonstrated little by going undefeated against a woeful schedule.

It appears I am in the minority among BlogPollsters upon this point, which seems strange to me, in light of the fact that, when LD meticulously debunked the Jayhawk myth, his analysis was met with the approval of two of the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere's most critical thinkers, MGoBlog's Brian Cook and Sunday Morning Quarterback's Matt Hinton.

In any case, because the BlogPoll is built upon a frank exchange of views (an enterprise at which I have much favorable experience), I stated my case against Kansas, which generated a response from Garnet and Black Attack. In this retort, Brandon (with whom I have sparred on previous occasions) had this to say:

Many of the critics of KU note the lack of a high-quality win by the Jayhawks, and there they have a point. But they also ignore the fact that, unlike all the other contenders, Kansas lacks one or (in more recent days) two losses against mid- or lower-tier teams that drag down some of the other teams.

For example, even before Oklahoma fell to Texas Tech on Saturday, they lost to Colorado -- a team Kansas defeated. (Full disclosure: Until this week, I had the Sooners ahead of the Jayhawks.)

Before losing to Arizona, Oregon fell to Cal in Eugene -- a loss that looks worse and worse as time passes.

Ohio State fell to Illinois, a solid loss, but one that weighs on their resume nonetheless. Missouri also fell to a tough team, Oklahoma, but did so in a convincing game by 10 points.

Kansas' being undefeated should count for something, if for no other reason than the fact that they have no loss pulling on their resume. Granted, this has come against "bad or mediocre opposition," but that's a pretty slender reed to grasp in a year when everyone else has lost to someone, often to someone who would otherwise be considered "bad or mediocre opposition."

This is even more of a logic problem, in my view, for a voter who has said that a team with a win is "objectively better" than a team with a loss. If that is true, then how is a team without a loss not "objectively better" than a team with one?

Remember, this is not Hawaii we're talking about. Kansas has played several teams from a BCS conference. And, comparing apples to apples, its performances in those games have compared favorably to a team that many previously ranked ahead of Kansas, and a team that some still do: Oklahoma.

Oklahoma defeated Baylor 52-21. Kansas also crushed the Bears, 58-10. KU defeated Texas A&M by an 19-11 margin, far closer than Oklahoma's 42-14 margin. But Kansas won its game against Colorado, 19-14, while the Sooners lost, 27-24. We will see soon enough how the Jayhawks' 43-28 victory over Oklahoma State compares to Oklahoma's margin, and whether Kansas can do better than Oklahoma's 41-31 margin over Missouri.

Even without all that, though, there is something to be said for being undefeated, for never having an off day -- or being better, even on that day, than your competition. For getting good performances every week from your key players -- or having someone else pick them up when that doesn't happen. For overcoming the unlucky bounces, bad calls and injuries that plague every team, every year. . . .

I do give LSU a slight edge for the enormous caliber of their wins and the extenuating circumstances of their loss -- a narrow defeat in triple overtime on the road.

But, aside from the Bayou Bengals, Kansas has done more than anybody else in the country, and it's about time we all recognized that fact.

Since I was quoted in portions of this posting other than those appearing in the passage reproduced above, and since I was the BlogPoll voter to whom reference was made in the link included in the foregoing excerpt, I left a comment in reply, to which Brandon offered a rejoinder (or two).

I made three points in answer to Brandon's posting, each of which he addressed in succession. The first of my contentions was as follows:

I believe my observation that a team with a win was objectively better than a team with a loss was made at the outset of the season, when everyone was either 1-0 or 0-1. I stated that proposition when explaining why teams such as Tennessee, which I believed would be good but which lost their first game, were not ranked on my next ballot. Obviously, once teams start playing more games, the math changes considerably; if it didn't, any conscientious voter would have to rank Hawaii and Kansas as the top two teams in the country, which would be principled yet absurd.

To this, he answered:
Fair enough. I don't know that I entirely agree, but I see where you're coming from. . . .

I never said that a team with a win is "objectively better" than a team without one, because I don't believe that's true. As Brian has pointed out, there has to be some element of projection, at least, at the beginning of the season.

As this does not seem to be a major point of contention, I do not believe this point requires further explication. My next observation was this:
The reason I indicated that readers should ignore the arrows was that I did not look at my ballot from the previous week when casting my ballot for that week. Thus, the arrows were coincidental and did not indicate that I had decided to move a particular team up or down from its previous position. This is because, as a resume ranker, I am looking at each team's body of work on a week-to-week basis and the value of previous wins and losses changes as a team's previous opponents win or lose. For instance, Oregon's win over Michigan had different value when the Wolverines were 6-2 than it did when the Maize and Blue were 0-2 and Georgia Tech's season-opening win over Notre Dame appeared more impressive at the time than it has at any point since. The arrows indicate the direction of the change, but they are unimportant because I did not look at the previous week's ballot when compiling the current one.

Brandon answered:
The point I didn't want to make in the post -- because, had I addressed that and SMQ's playoff thoughts, it would have ended up being far too long -- is that the arrows do matter, to an extent, even for a resume voter. There is a direction you're moving a team. If you believe that a team's resume is, for example, the ninth best in the nation one week and the 15th best in the nation the next week, there has to be a justification for it. Otherwise, there's no consistency and you're just ranking based on whimsy. If you drop a team or bump a team up a few spots based on a previous opponent's win or loss, that's fine. But to move a team dramatically -- dropping them by a double-digit margin, for example -- you have to have a pretty good reason to do so. Like you, I start off with a blank sheet every week. But then I compare it to my last poll, to avoid what I would see as logical inconsistency ... and to make sure (in fairness) I don't forget anyone, which almost happened a time or two.

My point was simply that many poll voters seem inclined to start the season with their preconceptions firmly entrenched and modify their ballots only marginally; if one team starts out ranked third and another starts out ranked 23rd, but both leap out to 8-0 starts, the former team is in a good position to make a run at No. 1, while the latter needs some help, based upon nothing more than the poll voter's preseason prejudices. This, in my view, is the most compelling of the many criticisms of college football polls.

I try to account for this by starting from scratch, if not weekly, then at least routinely. I try to take a fresh look at a team's resume each time, looking at its slate anew. This, to my way of thinking, has two advantages. First of all, it prevents a late-season loss from being overemphasized when compared to an early-season loss; I am looking at a team's entire body of work each Sunday afternoon, so the timing of a particular setback is inconsequential.

Secondly, looking at each potentially rankable team's resume anew each week allows me to re-evaluate the value of previous wins or losses. I cited two such examples above; another such example is Georgia's loss to South Carolina, which seemed like a quality loss at the time, but which has appeared increasingly bad as time has passed. Accordingly, I did not rank Georgia as high as I might have this week, as the harm done to the Bulldogs' resume by the loss to the Gamecocks weighs more heavily against the Red and Black than it once did, limiting the Classic City Canines' ascension even after victories over Florida, Auburn, and Kentucky in recent weeks.

If others wish to emphasize the arrows shown on each week's ballot, though, I have no particular objection to their doing so. The arrows on my most recent ballot reveal that four teams did not move at all, eight others moved one poll position, and six more moved two spots. In other words, 18 of the teams in my top 25 inched up or down only incrementally, which is indicative only of the most minor and innocuous tweaking.

Furthermore, only three teams on my ballot moved more than five spots and two of those were teams re-entering the rankings after languishing among the other teams receiving consideration. Those squads were helped, in part, by the attrition of other teams, leaving just one team that made truly significant movement. That team was Arizona State and I advanced the Sun Devils because I found SMQ's argument on their behalf convincing, so, in keeping with the spirit of open exchange which is intended to pervade the BlogPoll, I altered my vote accordingly.

This brings us to my third point, which was as follows:

I do not necessarily disagree with the proposition that Kansas will have earned a berth in the national championship game if the Jayhawks remain undefeated after facing Missouri and playing in the Big 12 title tilt. By that point, K.U. will have faced and beaten two legitimate opponents. Until that happens, though, they have beaten a Division I-AA opponent, seven Division I-A teams with losing records (including an 0-10 team in F.I.U. and a pair of 3-9 teams in Baylor and Iowa State), and three teams with 6-5 ledgers. The 'Hawks have not faced Oklahoma, Texas, or even Texas Tech, nor have they faced a non-conference opponent tougher than Central Michigan. Yes, they're undefeated. Which of the teams I have ranked ahead of Kansas wouldn't be undefeated against that schedule? (Admittedly, Kansas has played a tougher schedule than Hawaii, which is why I have the Jayhawks ranked ahead of the Warriors.)

Brandon came back with this pithy and pointed rejoinder:
"Which of the teams I have ranked ahead of Kansas wouldn't be undefeated against that schedule?" No need to go hypothetical, because there's an easy one: Oklahoma, currently 15 spots on your ballot ahead of KU. They lost to Colorado.

Touche; a most palpable hit. I concede the point; instead of there being every reason to believe that the top 20 teams on my ballot all would be 11-0 against the Jayhawks' slate, I must acknowledge that there is every reason to believe that, of the top 20 teams on my ballot, 19 would be 11-0 against the Jayhawks' slate and the other one would be 10-1.

There are, of course, other factors upon the basis of which to distinguish the Sooners from their conference coeval Kansas. Oklahoma has played only Division I-A opponents; one of the Jayhawks' wins came over a Division I-AA squad (a sin for which I dock all teams guilty of this wrong, including my own). Only one of O.U.'s wins was by a margin of seven or fewer points, and that was against a team that now sports a 9-2 record; two of K.U.'s victories were by margins of seven or fewer points, and those were against teams that now boast 5-6 ledgers. The 'Hawks had another fairly close call against the Aggies, who are 6-5 and whose coach's days are numbered.

Furthermore, the Sooners have beaten an eight-win Tulsa team, a nine-win Texas team, and a ten-win Missouri team. The Jayhawks have beaten a six-win Central Michigan team that lost by 56 points to Clemson, a six-win Oklahoma State team that lost badly to Troy, and a six-win Texas A&M team that trailed by 31 points at the end of the third quarter in a loss to the same Miami (Florida) team that lost by 38 points to Oklahoma.

The Sooners have two losses, which counts against Bob Stoops's troops, but both of those setbacks came in close contests on the road. One of those losses was to one of the bad teams that Kansas beat, but one of them was to a better team than any that the Jayhawks have faced. Simply stated, Oklahoma is 3-1 against teams with eight wins or more. To my mind, that is substantially more impressive an achievement than having gone 11-0 against a schedule that includes no teams with as many as seven victories to their credit.

I then got to what I consider the crux of the matter:

As I see it, there are two conscientious ways to rank Kansas: according to the value of the Jayhawks' achievement based solely upon wins and losses or according to the value of their achievement based upon the quality of their opposition. Obviously, I adopt the latter approach, believing that it is far more impressive to have gone 10-1 against a slate as rugged as L.S.U.'s than to have gone 11-0 against a schedule as weak as Kansas's.

If you're going to go solely by record, though, why not submit LD's Lebowski rankings as your ballot? Why not rank undefeated Kansas and Hawaii first and second, then begin ranking the once-beaten teams third, then start with the twice-beaten teams in sequence after that, and so on until 25 spots are filled?

I believe there are principled arguments for ranking Kansas No. 1 or for ranking Kansas No. 21. Ranking them in the top five but not No. 1, frankly, makes no sense to me. Are wins and losses all that matters or is it important which opponents a team has played?

If it's the former, then (as Saurian Sagacity argues) Kansas is the only undefeated team from a B.C.S. conference and, therefore, deserves to be No. 1. If it's the latter, then (as LD argues, I believe persuasively) Kansas deserves to be judged like a team that has beaten the teams it has beaten . . . and every team ranked ahead of the Jayhawks on my ballot has beaten all of the teams on its schedule as weak as or weaker than the toughest team K.U. has faced thus far, so they're as undefeated against lousy teams as Kansas is and they'll be ranked ahead of the Jayhawks until Mark Mangino's squad registers a quality win (which it has the opportunity to do for the first time this weekend).

A voter can't have it both ways, though. Kansas can be No. 1 or they can be No. 21. Ranking them anywhere from second through seventh, though, makes no sense whatsoever.

In response to this contention, Brandon argued:
I again see where you're coming from. And I have always said I'm not a straight resume voter until the regular season is over. With me, resumes take on increasing weight as the season goes on. Had Oregon actually gone through the entire season with one loss and LSU had done the same, I eventually would have leaped the Ducks over the Bengals because I think the Pac-10 is as good or just a touch better than the SEC this year. (Heresy, I know.)

But another point is that there is some degree of subjectivity to all of this. You have to admit that no resume ranking is perfect. Two people can look at a team and have two different perspectives on how difficult its schedule has been. I see an undefeated record through 11 games in a BCS league (this is why I omit Hawaii) as something akin to an extra quality win. (Coincidentally, Hawaii peeks back into my Top 25 this week at least in part because they get an edge from being undefeated and having finally beat a couple of teams in Fresno State and Nevada that at least have a pulse.) And I see a loss as something that has to be taken into consideration. When I balance those two, I see reasons for ranking LSU and, if you want, Missouri ahead of the Jayhawks. But no one else.

I also ranked the Warriors this week, and for the very same reasons Brandon gave: Hawaii's wins over Fresno State and Nevada, while counting for little, at least counted for something. I likewise agree that reasonable resume rankers may differ over the particular weight to assign to specific factors. Conscientious pollsters may have valid subjective differences over how to evaluate objective data upon which they agree completely.

That is why I have a great deal of respect for LD's Lebowski rankings and Saurian Sagacity's argument that the only undefeated team from a B.C.S. conference deserves the top spot in the poll. Those are perfectly reasonable positions based upon the most objective criteria available in college football: wins and losses.

Ranking Kansas first in the nation, therefore, is a defensible position which I understand and respect, despite my absolute disagreement with it, because it is based upon events which actually happened. To treat a particular won-lost record "as something akin to an extra quality win," though, is literally to credit the Jayhawks with something (namely, a quality win, of which K.U. has none) that did not happen. That puts us into pretty ephemeral territory, to put it politely; we're talking about William O. Douglas's BlogPoll ballot here, relying not on actual wins and losses, or even on strength of schedule, but on the "penumbras" cast by the "emanations" from a team's entire slate of games.

I simply do not comprehend how anyone could rank Kansas second, or third, or fourth. If we have decided to ignore strength of schedule as a criterion and focus solely on won-lost record, what argument is there for the proposition that Kansas isn't No. 1 and Hawaii isn't No. 2? Having made the decision to give some weight to the particular opponents a team has played and not just how many of them that team has beaten, though, what justification is there for placing the Jayhawks a notch behind L.S.U.?

If, as Brandon argues, we ought to dock Missouri for losing to Oklahoma or Ohio State for losing to Illinois, why shouldn't we dock the Bayou Bengals for losing to Kentucky? The Wildcats now stand at 7-4 overall, have a losing ledger in league play, and have lost three of their last four outings, so the Fighting Tigers' triple-overtime loss in Lexington is looking worse and worse all the time. At this point, it would be hard to argue that the 'Cats are better than the Illini or the Sooners, even for a shameless S.E.C. homer.

I have no problem ranking all of these teams over Kansas, because I think it matters not only that you won, but against whom you won. If we are agreed that this is a relevant criterion, though, why should the Bayou Bengals be the only squad given the benefit of that consideration?

I believe we all are agreed that remaining undefeated late in the season represents an achievement. If we suppose that strength of schedule matters, though, a reasonable argument might be mounted for the proposition that a one-loss team can be ranked ahead of an unbeaten team if that one-loss team has at least one win more impressive than the best win posted by that undefeated team. I believe Brandon effectively grants this proposition by ranking L.S.U. No. 1.

If we accept this premise, and if we grant that the Jayhawks' best win was over Texas A&M (which is 6-5 and which beat Oklahoma State, the other of the two Big 12 teams with 6-5 ledgers appearing on Kansas's slate thus far), we must concede that the following teams ought to be ranked ahead of Mark Mangino's squad:

  • Arizona State, which beat Oregon State
  • Louisiana State, which beat Auburn, Florida, and Virginia Tech
  • Missouri, which beat Illinois and Texas Tech
  • Ohio State, which beat Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin
  • West Virginia, which beat Cincinnati and Rutgers
Boise State comes close to having an argument, inasmuch as the Broncos' best victim, Fresno State, lost to the Aggies in triple-overtime in College Station, but I'm willing to concede that, on balance, B.S.U.'s 10-1 record is less impressive than K.U.'s 11-0 ledger.

If we extend the principle farther and argue that it is acceptable to rank a two-loss team over an undefeated team if the two-loss team has offset its unfavorable outcomes by beating at least two teams more impressive than the best team beaten by that undefeated squad, the following twice-beaten teams also deserve to be ranked ahead of Kansas:

  • Boston College, which beat Clemson and Virginia Tech
  • Connecticut, which beat Rutgers and South Florida
  • Georgia, which beat Auburn and Florida
  • Oklahoma, which beat Missouri and Texas
  • Oregon, which beat Arizona State and Southern California
  • Southern California, which beat California and Oregon State
  • Texas, which beat Central Florida and Texas Tech
  • Virginia, which beat Connecticut and Wake Forest
  • Virginia Tech, which beat Clemson and Florida State
Granted, poll voting isn't (and shouldn't be) quite as mechanical as that. This method (which I do not use when casting my actual ballot) represents an oversimplification, because (as I have pointed out repeatedly) you can't just go by a team's record, but this exercise helps to illustrate the point, which is this: Kansas can be ranked at the very top on wins and losses, or in the lower reaches of the top 25 on strength of schedule, but the argument for putting the Jayhawks anywhere in between is exceedingly weak.

Naturally, this argument will be rendered moot by the events of the next two Saturdays. If Kansas beats Mizzou and wins the Big 12 championship, the 'Hawks will have added their first really weighty wins to a resume currently filled with empty calories. If they win those games, they will rise; if not, K.U.'s 11-0 start will be revealed to be a sham.

However, based upon what we know right now---which is all we have to go on other than our own utterly unreliable speculations about what might happen in the future---there is a plausible argument for ranking Kansas first and a stronger argument for ranking Kansas 21st, but those are the only valid options. The Jayhawks either are No. 1 or they're no one.

Regardless of Brandon's and my heartfelt disagreement upon this topic, though, I would like to thank the proprietor of Garnet and Black Attack for his response, which was reasonable in both senses of the word. While he pulled no punches, he maintained an air of civility, which encouraged the sort of exchange Brian indicated from the outset was critical to the legitimacy of the BlogPoll.

I appreciated Brandon's approach, which confirmed yet again that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Whether you make better barbecue sauce with vinegar or with mustard is a disagreement for another day.

Go 'Dawgs!