Dispatching from the lavish confines of Gene Chizik's farewell party in Austin, proprietor Peter Bean of Burnt Orange Nation initiated a week of deep, thoughtful e-mail exchange of important ideas he promised would include at least one appropriate photo of chap-clad Texas cheerleaders As if there were ever an inappropriate time for chap-clad cheerleaders.
In his opening salvo, Peter questioned the sudden rise and fall of "Rematch Fever," and how, exactly, to meaningfully distinguish from one another this pack of deeply flawed contenders for the mythical championship game. SMQ's deranged response virtually ignored this question in favor of semantics. Unfazed, Peter plays devil's advocate while breaking open the playoff "can of worms," which he should know is always of the prank, mutant-worms-in-the-face variety. SMQ, again, dodged and weaved at the fundamental level as best he could. Shifting gears, Peter shunned SMQ's traditional bowl-based queries in favor of confronting his fears about Texas' rather lightweight 2007 schedule with meta scheduling strategy. All of the preceding should be consumed (metaphorically!) before proceeding.
Taking a look at Texas' 2007 schedule, I wouldn't be too on edge about it holding UT back. If you were Boise State looking at this schedule, possibly, or even a Big East team, given a sampling of the reaction when Louisville and West Virginia were threatening to crash the mythical championship a month ago (Rutgers, like Boise, was never a legitimate threat), there may be some reservations, depending on how good Oklahoma and Nebraska will be. But Texas is a trusted brand - it's proven itself recently and sufficently that voters will never view beating a quality opponent as a fluke or demand another crowned head in the same season before serious consideration is in order. The week before the Kansas State loss, especially during the 48 hours between Louisville's Thursday loss at Rutgers and the humbling end of the disappointment at KSU, this reputation was pretty much solely responsible for UT's prime - if brief - mythical championship position
This is at the heart of the idea I was hacking away at regarding Rutgers leading up to and following its upset of Louisville: most people seem to have preconceived notions about most teams, which take a tremendous amount of time and contrary evidence to change. This is related the wack notion of "better" or "best" I was kicking around Monday, and to the fundamental premise of a "resume" method of ranking: the tendency is to think of a team in terms of its platonic ideal, for lack of a better term, positively or negatively. That there is an undefined but fundamental element to a team that metaphysically determines "how good" the team is, often independent of results on the field. Not completely independent of the results, by any means, but enough that the results are occasionally discarded when they clash with the persistence of the ideal - this weekend, for example, Lee Corso said he still thought Cal, off two straight conference losses, one of them to outright conference champion USC, was "the best team in the PAC Ten." Someone else at the Leader, after West Virginia's loss to South Florida, echoed that sentiment about the Mountaineers in the Big East. LSU, eliminated from contention for the division title, played last Friday to prove it really was "the best team in the SEC West," and now is ranked as such even as Arkansas prepares to play for the conference championship. Texas fans will be familiar with Matt Leinart's defiance following last year's Rose Bowl, when he said "I still think we're the best team." No evidence in the standings or head-to-head results supports any of those statements. Returning to the example linked in the first paragraph, which has been similarly disputed elsewhere, when undefeated Louisville and West Virginia rack up more than 1,000 yards and nearly 80 points - in part directly via scores by the defense and special teams - it's a disgraceful defensive display. But when undefeated Michigan and Ohio State score more points on more yards, it's an unforgettable classic that prove how incredibly great each team is relative to the rest of the woebegone nation.
So the idea about Rutgers, for example, is that Rutgers sucks. It's sucked for 30 straight years, without fail. So if you play Rutgers and lose, you suck (witness Louisville immediately falling back after that game below the WVU team it had just beaten by double digits in every human poll that counts). Beat Rutgers, so what? Everybody's supposed to beat Rutgers. An EDSBS commenter today was certain every team ranked below Rutgers on Orson's would "wax" the Knights. But the only team in the entire poll Rutgers had played, Louisville, universally now ranked ahead of Rutgers, didn't wax the Knights at all. Against every other opponent to date, Rutgers' "waxed" vs. "been-waxed" ratio is, in the most conservative estimate, 7 to 1. So the commenter's statement was based on...?
After the Cincinnati loss, this widely-held perception will take another year of similar success, and against better competetion, to legitimately change hearts and minds. Were people ever really sold, for example, on Kansas State in the mid-nineties? The Wildcats had to finally beat a relatively mediocre Nebraska team, a shadow of the Huskers' co-championship team the preceding season, to set itself up for the mythical championship (which it lost at the last possible moment to Texas A&M, of course, because it's Kansas State, after all). It took several years of success for KSU to build its reputation up to the point it could attain that degree of poll success. So for that kind of school, playing quality opponents is very important, because it will take years to gain enough respect, probably too many years to sustain the necessary success, to play for a mythical championship otherwise. The Business of College Football referred to them earlier in the season as the sport's equivalent of the nouveau riche.
Texas, though, is way past that point. The respect is there for Texas. If, say, Baylor played the exact same schedule and went undefeated, there would be a major controversy - can we really allow Baylor to play for a championship? Thousands of writers would sound off on the Bears' fraudulency and trash the computers that lack the ability to gaze into a team's soul. But if UT goes undefeated, it will play for the championship. No mainstream pundit would dispute or show the slightest surprise over Texas' inclusion - it's schedule would be seen as an asset, not a hurdle.
Unless, of course, there are two other big time, undefeated programs, in which case the `Horns have a problem, a la Auburn 2004. That's the risk. There's also little margin of error if there are a cluster of one-loss teams vying for one or both championship slots, which is the case this year. In that scenario, USC's got a pretty solid advantage by virtue of Arkansas, Nebraska and Notre Dame, which has to rank as the most impressive non-conference schedule of at least the decade. Not that the Trojans are necessarily responsible for this - both Arkansas and Nebraska could have gone either way this season, and the odds of both playing for conference titles Saturday wouldn't have even been posted in August, much less whenever SC penciled them into the calendar - but definitely they are reaping the benefits of having more "quality wins" than their blue chip competitors. If the non-conference is going to be soft - unless you're in the SEC, where the slate is considered the equivalent of crawling through No Man's Land, and a couple of the regular contenders have decent annual rivalry games outside the conference, anyway - you'd better win `em all.
So scheduling strategy depends on who you is. At Texas, I'd do exactly what the `Horns did this season, taking on one heavy (though preferably not as heavy as Smith-led Ohio State, if my team's starting a redshirt freshman quarterback, to the extent this can be helped), a lower tier bowl team or two, like TCU, and a tasty cupcake. If I was going to build a program, I'd follow Kansas State's model: eat up on the little guys, get some winning seasons under your belt, play in some bowl games, earn a little attention, and gradually up the ante as the program gains in strength and reputation. This is so difficult to sustain, and KSU, obviously, couldn't hit that crucial championship paydirt before it hit a spot of decline. But it put itself in the position to reach that next level.
Then again, Florida State got where it is (er, was) by matching up as independents with "Murderer's Row," an insane string of road games in Bobby Bowden's early years during the seventies. So, you know. It would be more difficult for a school to approximate that strategy today because there are no more independents.
I'm going to go back to this on my closing volley, verbatim from Tuesday, because it went nowhere: Let's shift gears a little, and focus on our old friends, the bowls: do you think there are too many? How can the "tie-in" system be best used to create the best postseason matchups, or should it be scrapped altogether? I've been checking out some very oficial bowl projections the past few weeks, and compelling match-ups - even in the BCS and traditional New Year's games - are almost nonexistant. Again, I love bowl games and have no problem with anyone who can pay for one hosting - the BCS, after all, has done more damage to the prestige of the Cotton and other traditionally very respectable games than the glut of mid-major-laden events named for mediocre cities - but the games sure seemed to offer a lot more to look forward to ten years ago than they do now. Maybe I'm just older, more discerning of the staginess for staginess' sake, more cynical. Do you get the same sense?