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Memo to Stewart Mandel: This Is How You Make a Point!

The next time Stewart "Stop Me Before I Write Again!" Mandel decides he wants to express an opinion about anything related to college football, he needs to pay a visit to Addicted to Quack, where Dave has given a clinic on how to state a sensible position in a way that will make others respect your point of view.

As the name of his site attests, Dave is an Oregon Ducks fan and his posting this afternoon---from which I will quote liberally, but which you should read in its entirety, nevertheless---asked whether his favorite team was overrated.

He was not the first to raise this question. An anonymous commenter went to great lengths to criticize Oregon when Georgia was putting the finishing touches on a contract to play the team from Eugene and, although I had the Ducks ranked as high as second as recently as last October, I nevertheless chafed at the suggestion that Oregon was the Pac-10 equivalent of my alma mater.

For one thing, my team is much better dressed.

In addressing this question, Dave took the next step in examining what Stewart Mandel should have discussed:

Do we perceive teams as being what they really are? Let me give you an example of how I perceive teams. I have tiers that I usually put them into:

Perennial Championship Contenders: This would be the top tier. Michigan, Florida, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, LSU, USC would be examples of schools I would put in there.

Second Tier Schools: Schools that are usually pretty good, will compete for a national championship every few years, but also have a down year every few years, examples: Wisconsin, Oregon, Georgia, Penn State, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame would be examples that I would put in that group.

Average Schools: These are probably top 25 teams about a half to a third the time, and are average the other seasons with the occasional really bad year. Examples: Oregon State, Washington State, Colorado, Pitt.

The Irrelevant: This is basically everybody else. The teams who are NEVER a player on the national scene.

Three points bear making before we proceed.

First of all, unlike Stewart Mandel, Dave is giving us his perception (and letting us know it's his perception) rather than attempting to give us his perception of the perceptions of others. Dave is letting us know what he thinks rather than engaging in a fool's errand that is neither productive nor particularly interesting.

Secondly, also unlike Stewart Mandel, Dave is telling us why his perception is what it is. He provides us criteria with which to evaluate his assessment. Even if his categories are somewhat general, at least we have some meaningful idea of what he is taking into consideration when making his selections.

Mandel, by contrast, seems to have about as much rhyme and reason to his list as these folks do.

Finally, perhaps because he is using criteria more rational than wondering hypothetically whether a hundred mythical Montanans would find the checkerboard pattern in the end zone of Neyland Stadium more recognizable than a red helmet with an oval "G" on the side, Dave has come up with a list which, while still subject to constructive criticism, doesn't just reach right out and slap you upside the head with its oddness. Once again, this distinguishes Dave from Bozo the Columnist.

"I group teams this way in my head," explains Dave, who goes on to write:

That being said, I don't know that these are really fair. For example, we know that Oregon and Oregon State have eerily similar records over the last decade yet, I, like most college fans, have Oregon has a better program. I look at the teams that I lump Oregon with: Penn State and Georgia? Is Oregon really on that level? Lets look at the wins/losses over the last ten years:

Oregon:  8.0 wins to 4.0 losses
Penn State:  7.4 wins to 4.7 losses
Georgia:  9.0 wins to 2.6 losses

Statistically, Oregon is a better program than Penn State, although I bet many people perceive Penn State as the better program. Georgia, at least in terms of wins and losses, is on the same level as the Floridas and Ohio States, yet a low of people perceive them as being lower.

But the problem with perception is that not all people perceive things the same way. A segment of SEC fans perceive the Pac-10 as the worst of the BCS conferences when statistically, it isn't true. A certain segment of Pac-10 fans try to say it's the best conference. Well, statistically, that's not true, either. And hence is the problem with perception. You can't concretely measure it. Its not the same for any two people, and people tend to overvalue their teams and undervalue others.

Dave readily admits that these numbers are somewhat simplistic, as "what analysis we did do assumed that all wins are the same," which, of course, they aren't. More important than the nuances of his general point, though, is the way in which he goes about making it.

When addressing perception ("I bet many people perceive Penn State as the better program"), he takes the next step that Stewart Mandel never seemed able to take, noting that, "[s]tatistically, Oregon is a better program than Penn State." Regarding the specific team Mandel maligned (namely, mine), Dave notes that "Georgia, at least in terms of wins and losses, is on the same level as the Floridas and Ohio States."

This is what I've been saying!

When confronting the problem of perception, he distributes his constructive criticisms evenhandedly. Instead of pointing fingers, slinging charges, and making generalizations, Dave takes on his own conference's fan base as well as my conference's fan base. In both instances, he resists the temptation to tar the opposition with too broad a brush, acknowledging that he is rebutting a "segment" of the fans, not all of them.

Ultimately, Dave comes to the following conclusion:

I want to say that Notre Dame is overrated because they haven't won a bowl game in a zillion years. Some want to say that Oregon is overrated because they haven't won a conference championship in six years. But for all these arguments, there is an argument in reverse, depending on what variables and criteria are important to you.

And, to be quite honest, that's what makes college football so great. The debates don't end with the games, and conclusions are so hard to come by that you don't easily give in. And while we can do our best to present our case, we aren't terribly likely to change someone else's philosophies.

Agree to disagree. Make your case. Enjoy the debate. Hate Notre Dame. If that isn't the essence of college football fandom, I don't know what is.

Well, that and hating Auburn.

There are certain particulars of Dave's argument with which I might take issue, but there is a larger point that deserves to be made. Dave, an amateur (I do not use that term disparagingly), didn't seem to break a sweat---in fact, he apologized "for the ramble" and confessed, "I'm not even sure if it really makes any sense whatsoever"---while leaving Stewart Mandel, a professional (at least in the sense that he gets paid to do what he does), in the dust.

The moral of the story is simple: these are the places you go to get your sports news, but these are the places you go to get your sports analysis. That's the message of this medium.

Nice job, Dave.

Go 'Dawgs!