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Confederates in the Attic: Making Peace Between the Big Ten and the S.E.C.

For the last week or so, I've been meaning to say something about a recent posting from Dave, in which the proprietor of SportsBlogs Nation's Michigan weblog, Maize 'n' Brew, had this to say:

So much of college football is made up of the fans' identification with their team. "I'm a Wolverine/Domer/Gator/Dawg/Trojan/Cock/Longhorn and Damn proud of it!" We come to associate so much with these teams that it becomes not just an insult to our team when some[one] doesn't support them or speaks ill of them, but a personal insult to us. We take umbrage to the people who do not share our view point that University X is the greatest in the world. However, what is troubling to me is that instead of a reasoned response of "Whatever, it's your opinion, here's why you are wrong," we resort to hurling expletives and insults.

Even as a kid I was puzzled by this. My first response was always, "how does this help?" Am I supporting my team by calling some dude I barely know a douchebag? Does it help Michigan win if I tell a Domer to go F himself because it's his position our offense isn't that good? Will USC emerge victorious because I started a fight with a UCLA grad in the parking lot, just because he went to UCLA? Does a Nebraska Texas showdown really need a bunch of people calling each other inbreds to make the game that much better? . . .

The ability to agree to disagree some how got lost in the morass. This is where college football and religion collide. We cannot accept that there is another path to the Valhalla we all believe in (BCS Baby!). Because our core belief that our team is the best is deemed insulted we must respond in kind. We must tear down the infidel. Yell at the blasphemer. Degrade ourselves to prove our team/belief is better.

Perhaps it is time to rethink our responses a tad. Remember that this is a pastime rather than a matter of life and death. Remember that the people we accuse of being mindless idiots are thinking the same thing about us. Remember the best way to convince someone you're not all bad, is by pointing to the positive rather than peeing on them when they disagree. Perhaps it's time to raise the level of discourse above our guttural instincts.

Dave's point is a good one that deserved amplification, but I never quite got around to it. In a way, I'm glad I didn't, because I believe his observations dovetail nicely with a recent exchange in the ongoing (and futile) internecine feuding between the Big Ten and the S.E.C.

As noted by Sunday Morning Quarterback, Phillip Fulmer recently made a stupid, erroneous, and inflammatory statement that "other conferences have teams like Michigan that play just two or three tough conference games a year."

Linus Van Pelt waited all night in the pumpkin patch for the Tennessee coach to arrive and, when he finally got there, Phillip Fulmer had nothing more cogent than that to say?!?!

Coach Fulmer would have had a point if he had limited himself to arguing that the existence of a conference championship game makes it harder for teams from the A.C.C., the Big 12, and the S.E.C. to go undefeated than for squads from the Big East, the Big Ten, and the Pac-10 to do so. The argument that a Big Ten team "play[s] just two or three tough conference games a year," though, is ludicrous.

I'm as big an S.E.C. homer as the next rabid fan, but we have to keep our criticisms within the realm of reality. Last year, I ranked an 11-2 Michigan team ahead of an 11-2 Louisiana State team because a fair assessment of the two teams' respective achievements dictated such a result. As I wrote at the time (with the ellipses in the original):

L.S.U. and Michigan each went 11-2 while suffering similar setbacks. Neither squad lost on its home field; both squads lost one game narrowly and another by a wider margin; the combined record of the teams that beat the Maize and Blue (Ohio State and Southern California) was 23-3 and the combined record of the teams that beat the Bayou Bengals (Auburn and Florida) was 24-3. Although Louisiana State beat one more bowl-eligible opponent (7) than did Michigan (6), the Wolverines beat an additional team with nine or more wins (4) than their counterparts from Baton Rouge (3). In the end, it came down to the two teams' three best wins. L.S.U. hammered Notre Dame at a neutral site . . . but Michigan throttled the Fighting Irish in South Bend. Louisiana State beat Arkansas and Tennessee . . . but the Maize and Blue beat Penn State and Wisconsin. Since the Nittany Lions defeated the Volunteers and the aforementioned Badgers beat the Razorbacks, I believe it's fair to give Michigan more credit for its biggest wins.

SMQ predicted that MGoBlog's Brian Cook would react to Coach Fulmer's ill-considered comments, and react he did:
[O]ver the last decade, the Big Ten and SEC have played each other twenty-six times in bowl games and have split them exactly down the middle. Since regular season games between the two conferences are without exception either imbalanced beatdowns a la Michigan-Vanderbilt or irrelevant a la Indiana-Kentucky, -- which you may or may not know is an annual occurrence -- the bowl record is the only real data point we have on the relative strengths of the conferences. It says the two are equal; if you are inclined to view games in Florida or Nashville or wherever else as virtual road games for the Big Ten then you would have to give the Big Ten a slight advantage despite the outcome of one singularly embarrassing national championship game.

As for Fulmer's assertion, sorry, no sale. Both Mississippi teams, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky are perennial wrecks. South Carolina and Arkansas have never really done anything; over the past decade or so are they really more accomplished than Purdue or, hell, even Minnesota? Alabama is now Michigan State with a really buff history. (Hey... they've even got the same coach.) I don't mean this as disrespect to the SEC. It is obviously a fine football conference with many teams featuring sharp, pointy teeth. But to declare one conference or the other clearly superior is ridiculous. The bottom of the SEC is just as repugnant as the bottom of other conferences, and the nougaty middle is no less soft. When the two conferences meet the results on the field -- again, the only actual data point we have -- are dead even. This discussion should end.

There are parts of that with which I would quarrel, of course. First of all, I don't buy the "virtual road game" thesis; a neutral site game is a neutral site game and, if the Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin license plates I see while headed southbound on I-75 to visit my family at Christmas are any indication, folks from Big Ten country make the trek to the Sunshine State just fine.

Moreover, it is hardly fair to call the two Magnolia State squads "perennial wrecks." The Rebels went to bowl games six times in the seven years between 1997 and 2003, three of which were played on New Year's Eve or later, and the Western Division Bulldogs won seven or more games in seven of the 10 seasons from 1991 to 2000, making a conference title game appearance in 1998 and winning 10 games in 2000.

When you're guilty of this much cheating, you have to be good!

Those records of achievement, while far from stellar, are a good deal better than the accomplishments of Indiana, which has not been to a bowl game since 1993 and has not posted a winning season since 1994. Consequently, I would not judge the Hoosiers' series with the Wildcats to be "irrelevant" because the two teams are comparable. (Kentucky has lost fewer than five games in just one of the 29 seasons since 1977.)

Finally, I would not argue that the Razorbacks "have never really done anything"; 13 Southwest Conference crowns, three trips to the S.E.C. championship game, and the 1964 national title would seem to qualify as "something." Nevertheless, Brian's overall point is a fair one, including his comparison of Arkansas to Minnesota. (We sometimes forget that the Golden Gophers have claimed 18 Big Ten championships in their history.)

The Big Ten and the S.E.C. are comparable conferences competing evenly with one another. This is why the frequent postseason matchups between the two have produced many close contests and an overall .500 record in recent seasons. When wondering why Big Ten teams seemed so disinclined to schedule S.E.C. squads during the regular season, I made much the same observation as Brian has offered:

The unapologetic S.E.C. homer in me would like to believe that Big Ten teams are just plain scared, but that, too, is a theory unsupported by evidence. Between 2002 and 2006, S.E.C. teams were 1-0 against Big Ten teams in B.C.S. bowl games, but, during that same period, the Big Ten was 2-1 against the S.E.C. in the Music City Bowl, 3-2 against the S.E.C. in the Outback Bowl, and 3-2 against the S.E.C. in the Capital One Bowl.

In short, Brian is making a fair point in a reasonable manner, taking great care to stress that he means no "disrespect to the SEC," which he correctly characterizes as "a fine football conference with many teams featuring sharp, pointy teeth." The thrust of his argument---that the same may be said for the Big Ten---is demonstrably correct, which is why I have defended such programs as Michigan from unreasonable criticisms by S.E.C. partisans and why I have defended such coaches as Lloyd Carr from unreasonable comparisons to Urban Meyer.

At the end of his posting, Brian even makes reference to "that one extra game against Western Carolina or Appalachian State," carefully naming both the Division I-AA team Georgia will face next fall and the Division I-AA team Michigan will face next fall.

As a card-carrying member of the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere, I am contractually obligated to include a "Hot! Hot! Hot!" reference following any mention of Appalachian State.

Where Brian and I part company is over his response to Corn Nation's take on the 1997 national championship, in which he added the following extraneous aside:

Note that there will be no budging on the Heisman issue -- it [w]as Woodson's, by God, and if you think otherwise you're moonshine addled and possibly (feh!) [C]onfederate! -- in this space as long as its proprietor breathes free, abolitionist Yankee air.

The 13th Amendment having been ratified over 140 years ago, I daresay we all are breathing "free, abolitionist" air. Indeed, if you take the Emancipation Proclamation at its word, slavery was ended in the South sooner than it was in the north. What, pray tell, has that to do with college football?

Because that irrelevant broadside (and some comments left in reply) rubbed me the wrong way, I left the following response (in two parts):

What Phillip Fulmer said was obviously stupid and wrong. While a particular team's results might differ due to which opponents it faced and which opponents it missed in the rotation, a Big Ten schedule is, on balance, as challenging as an S.E.C. schedule and no team in either league enjoys an easy road to a championship.

Urban Meyer is, in fact, an enormous tool, as evidenced by that quotation and every other noteworthy remark he has ever uttered for public consumption, all of which bespoke an unbridled arrogance about his position.

The evenness of the postseason records of the two conferences against one another clearly demonstrates that the Big Ten and the S.E.C. are of comparable quality and the differences between the two leagues are slight.

Had I possessed a poll vote in 1997, I would have ranked Michigan No. 1, as I believe the Wolverines were the better team of the two contenders.

Although Peyton Manning lost a Heisman Trophy balloting that he deserved to win, it was not, as many Tennessee fans believe, the 1997 award (which justly went to the best player in college football that year), but the 1996 award. (I saw both Manning and Danny Wuerffel in person against my team that season and Manning clearly was the better of the two.)

I offer all of those observations as a native Southerner, a University of Georgia graduate and season ticket holder, and an S.E.C. football fan.

I am hopeful that the foregoing statements will help to discourage the knee-jerk dismissiveness exhibited by some---not all, but some---Big Ten fans when reacting to the knee-jerk dismissiveness exhibited by some---not all, but some---S.E.C. fans.

Identifying nonsense and rebutting it with facts is fair game and most welcome. However, my great-great-grandfather was a Confederate veteran . . . as, incidentally, was Fielding Yost's father. Where one's ancestors stood upon important Constitutional questions in the mid-19th century is irrelevant to the quality of college football in the early 21st century.

Mocking the presumed manner of speaking supposedly exhibited by those with accents from other regions also seems a bit childish and unnecessary. Try to imagine how ridiculous it would look if I tried to render a quotation from, say, Joe Paterno that was written to emulate the way he actually sounds.

Factual data and actual quotations not only are fair game, they are welcome subjects for discussion, as any rebuttal of an untrue statement gets us all closer to the correct answer, which always is a desirable goal, even when our own ox is getting gored.

Belittling fans of other conferences or the populations of other regions en masse, however, is unnecessary and unproductive. As a proud Southerner and loyal S.E.C. fan who tries to write respectfully of other other [sic.] teams, leagues, regions, and fans, I am saddened when civility of the sort called for recently by Maize 'n' Brew Dave breaks down and fans fall to snide mockery when what is called for is reasoned discourse.

Brian, while there were particular points with which I found fault, your posting was a sound and sensible one overall and I thank you for taking the time to write it. Nice job.

(I should add, in all fairness, that one of the commenters whose remarks troubled me took the time to offer a measured reply.)

I don't want to belabor or overstate the point, since Brian took the trouble to avoid writing disrespectfully of the Southeastern Conference. When I got "The Movement" underway, Brian immediately provided his support. When Brian has offered criticism, I have made every effort to respond reasonably. When Brian has offered more criticism, I have made every effort to respond reasonably. When Brian has taken exception to my criticisms, I have tried to answer with legitimate questions and historical evidence.

In short, Brian is a respected colleague (hence the nickname "The Lawgiver") and a good guy. He tends to be a little more quantitative and I tend to be a little more qualitative, but, then, he's an engineer and I'm a lawyer. His professional premise is that, if the numbers aren't sound and certain, physical structures collapse and the people in those buildings die. My professional premise is that, if the words don't provide for multiple alternative eventualities, institutional arrangements collapse and the people in those relationships lose.

As a show of solidarity with Brian, I hereby include this photograph of Scarlett Johansson as a peace offering.

While my work sometimes calls upon me to adopt an adversarial posture as an advocate, my best work is done when I am successful in bridging gaps and building consensus between parties in conflict with one another. Brian, by contrast, is all about working the math and reaching a single and irrefutably correct answer with which there is no fiddling.

The problem for each of us, of course, is that life is both qualitative and quantitative. It is about making your mortgage payment and saying goodnight prayers with your kids.

Sports cannot be understood without recourse to numbers but neither can the sublime results of extreme physical exertion and gutsy play-calling be reduced solely to statistics. (What joy would there be in sports if they could?) While Brian is as unabashed a devotee of statistical minutiae as you are apt to find, he knows this, which is why his basketball analysis contains gems such as this:

Chauncey Billups is broken, though it's not clear exactly how. I remain steadfast in my belief that "clutch" is a fiction borne of the human mind's imperative to shoehorn events into some sort of narrative causality, to look for reasons where there are not necessarily any. See the sun moving across the sky? How does it do that? Probably chariots. There must be sun chariots. Reading anything into Billups' (debatably) ill-advised late three or turnover spectacular other than "Billups is broken" is an exercise in sun chariot detection...but something ain't right with him.

What? I wish it was self-inflicted. I wish some vital portion of Billups' industrial-strength reliability gyro had fatigued at a critical point and released a bit of shrapnel that ricocheted its way through his normally aerodynamic interior, gouging divots and scraping paint and leaving behind basically the same thing except a little... off. And that internal repair gnomes hired by anthropomorphized time would sing their little internal repair gnomes song and bring out their spackle and their belt sanders and whistle -- no, that's dwarves -- sing "The Final Countdown" a capella style as they restored Billups to pristine working order.

This does not appear to be the case.

More to the point, it is why Brian can write this on the eve of the Ohio State game:
At some point, as David Harris reclines -- head against a wall, fixing his bayonet, passing the time -- the faint ratatat of drums will filter through the concrete, beating out a march. Harris will rise from his seat, take up his helmet, and stride forward. The future holds its breath for three hours.

There's only one thing left. Play. Fight. Win. Please.

That was just about the most beautifully-written paean to have appeared in the blogosphere that was penned by anyone not named Johnny.

Trust me . . . that's a high compliment.

The point is that we all rely on facts, figures, and fine details, but, in the end, we all are partisans, first and foremost, irrespective of whether the numbers skew our way. This is why I favor the forthright admission of biases and it is why Dave was right (in the posting I quoted at the outset) that it is "[t]ime to remember that this is a great game that we all love, just in different ways."

I make no secret of the ways in which I love this game and I believe that I share a common bond with those who feel similarly, even if they are partisans of different teams. Unless he happens to do something unconscionable (like, say, rooting for Auburn, which is the Ohio State of the Plains), a devoted fan of another school is all right in my book.

Brian is such a fan; his pride in his University of Michigan degrees and his passion for the Maize and Blue match and mirror my own in my University of Georgia degrees and for the Red and Black. As kindred spirits, we and those like us on both sides of the aisle should be able to interact with civility, even when we disagree. The large areas of common ground that we share should be more evident and open to exploration.

To the extent that we have difficulty finding that shared expanse, both sides are at fault. When Coach Fulmer offered his ignorant utterance, he said something foolish and false, for which S.E.C. fans should be the first to call him out because he made us all look bad by conforming to the popular stereotype of Southern football fans as condescending detractors of teams and leagues from New England, the Midwest, and the West.

Don't act like New Year's Day 2003 didn't happen, y'all . . . and don't act like you weren't pulling for the Wolverines that day, either.

By the same token, when a retort is warranted, those offering a rejoinder should take care not to paint with too broad a brush. Reasonable men may take divergent views upon my forebears' attempt to do on Pennsylvania soil on July 3, 1863, what their forebears undertook to do on Pennsylvania soil on July 4, 1776, but nuanced subjects of historic importance deserve scholarly and learned discourse, not flippant asides that subject my ancestors to casual derision.

I know Brian meant nothing of consequence when making that reference. Nevertheless, the War is the definitive event in American history and it was a critical turning point for my family, as for many others. My great-great-grandfather was held as a prisoner of war and, when he returned home after Appomattox, he chose to move his family to another part of Georgia to get away from the memories his old home invoked. Many members of my family still reside near where he relocated.

In short, the War is a matter of great gravity to my people, for legitimate reasons, so I am troubled when my heritage is spoken of so glibly and dismissively. There are fit subjects for kidding around . . . but that ain't one of 'em.

I agree with Brian's fundamental point and I am grateful to him for the reasonable tenor and respectful tone of his refutation of Coach Fulmer's remarks. As one devoted fan to another, though, I hope that Brian will recognize that, for the reasons Dave gave, my ability to agree with the thought that he expressed was hampered by a small yet significant aspect of the manner in which he expressed it.

Go 'Dawgs!