Monday, September 27, 2010

College football: as predictable as ever

Oklahoma, Nebraska and Auburn are holding top ten rankings. So is Ohio State. Michigan has vaulted its way back into the spotlight with a top 20 ranking, while Texas is out of the top 20. And Alabama is ranked ninth in the nation. 9th?...Wait, what?

Hold on a second. My mistake. I was looking at the AP standings from 1986. Alabama is actually still number one in 2010, but everything else is the same. Apparently not much has changed since the year I was born.

Okay perhaps schools like Boise State and TCU have made some progress in the past two decades, but are either of them 'coming out of nowhere' anymore? Both Boise and TCU have been ranked in the top 25 of the final AP poll seven of the past nine years. Sounds pretty consistent to me. After three or four years perhaps it's fluky. After seven? I'd call that a trend.

And really, does TCU have any national title chance? Does Boise St. even? To finish in the top two, once the other top schools start playing all their heavy weight opponents, Boise or TCU will have to go undefeated. That's a given. They will also need no one else to go undefeated. But they will also need every other title contender to have a 'bad' loss and not a good one. If Ohio State goes 11-1 with their loss coming at home against Purdue, sure Boise will leap them. But what if the Buckeyes go 11-1 with their lone loss coming on the road at Iowa with Iowa being in the top 10-15 at the time? Does Boise finish the season ahead of them? I say no.

So unless everything breaks correctly, the schools with a chance at the title this year include Alabama, Ohio State, Nebraska or Oklahoma, and maybe Oregon or Florida. That's about it. Sound like a surprise bunch or could this group of half a dozen contenders been from any year at random? Sure specific schools are up specific years while specific other schools are down specific other years. If you pick one year at random, Ohio State might not have been a top five team. Texas is probably not getting back into the top five this season. But overall, aren't these contenders always the same? Throw in USC, LSU, and a couple others and there really is about 15 schools that are fighting for titles. Everyone else is battling to win their own conference and make a BCS game and that's about it. The year, the decade doesn't even really matter.

Nearly a quarter century ago, in that 1986 poll, Penn State, Miami, Oklahoma, and Nebraska finished in the top five. Sure Arizona State was in there and they don't really contend in the 2000's but those same other four could have been there in 1986 or 1996 or 2006. The top teams are always the same.

Before the uninformed start blaming this on the BCS, that there are so few teams in contention because of how the formulas work, be aware that there was no BCS before 1998. It hasn't been around that long. Long enough for people to hate it, yes. But Justin Bieber has only been famous for like 9 months and people already hate him. So having a mob turn on you quickly is no sign of anything. But the BCS cannot be blamed for this constant contender dilemma.

So what is to blame? Well part of the blame belongs to the nature of college sports themselves. Names matter. The name University of Florida or North Carolina or Duke in basketball mean something. High school kids want to follow and play for historic schools and classic programs. This is a self containing system in some respects. The big time schools have the history to attract the best recruits, thus sustaining their talent and success for another four year cycle. And so forth. This is so prevalent that young kids still want to go to Notre Dame for some reason. Notre Dame hasn't been nationally relevant in decades, yet the name still carries weight.

Another cause of this effect is rule breaking. Not every school breaks the rules when recruiting, but, I mean, at least 80% do. And that might be a light estimate. These days you cannot recruit big talent without bending. It might be a sad state of affairs but it is obviously true. And even those schools that aren't technically committing rules violations are still recruiting questionable kids who get in trouble with the law. USC, North Carolina, and Florida are just some of the schools in 2010 alone who fall into these categories. A common thread among the violators? There are not many 'mid-majors.' You don't hear about many rules being broken from Conference USA or from the state of Montana or North Dakota. The big schools, to get the big talent, must toe moral lines lightly to keep their players away from rivals. Because in the end, if "you" don't pay so-and-so to come to your university, "they" will and their team will be more talented than yours as a result. Perhaps this is too simplistic for what really goes on, but even a dumbed down version makes logical sense for why the biggest schools stay big.

Of course the next question is what can be done to fix this year to year, decade to decade predictability of college football? The short answer is how the hell should I know? The long answer is a bit more complicated. You could tell yourself schools like Boise State are making progress but can't some of that be attributed to the down years of west coast teams? Right now, there aren't many great schools in Washington or California and Boise is benefiting. The only way I see a tide shifting is if great recruiters and great coaches go to and STAY at "small" schools. Chris Petersen has stayed at Boise State, turning down other positions. That is rare. Coaches leave at the drop of a hat for more money and more prestige. But if good recruiters can build bases at these schools and continue to recruit year in and year out, the good high schoolers will take notice. I'm sure there are 16 and 17 year olds who want to go to Boise when they graduate high school, just to play for coach Petersen.

So that is our only hope. Of course, if Gary Patterson leaves TCU and if Petersen dumps Boise for and SEC job, we're doomed for another half century. I can see the year 2061 AP poll taking shape already.

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