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Green With Conference Envy

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Usually, SMQ is only deeply, intensely jealous of Orson or Brian or other peddlers of rockin' New Media! insight and creativity, but  occasionally, actual professional columnists are worth their salaries. Kudos today to the Worldwide Leader's Mark Schlabach, who ably counters Big East-bashing most vocally expounded after Thursday's West Virginia-Louisville game by Jason Whitlock thusly:

So Louisville's 44-34 victory over then-No. 3 West Virginia was too high-scoring for the Big East detractors. Too many points (78). Too many yards (1,008). Not enough defense.

How easily we forget the final score of last season's Rose Bowl, in which No. 2 Texas upset No. 1 USC 41-38 to win the national championship. The Longhorns and Trojans combined for more points (79) and yards (1,130) than the Mountaineers and Cardinals did last week.

But because Texas and USC aren't from the much-maligned Big East, the Rose Bowl was considered an instant classic.

And never mind that No. 2 Michigan just allowed 26 points to a Ball State team that scored seven against Central Michigan. Or that Texas allowed 518 yards and trailed 21-0 in its 35-31 win over unranked Texas Tech two weeks ago.
Instead of giving the Cardinals credit for crushing the third-ranked team in the country -- a win that is arguably as impressive as Ohio State at Texas or Michigan at Notre Dame -- much of the public focused on what Louisville didn't do: shut down one of the country's most explosive offenses. What did you expect? A shutout?
"If it was a low-scoring game, they probably would have said there was no offense," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "If it was a high-scoring game, they would say there's no defense. There's still a handful of people out there looking to pounce on the Big East. I think it's kind of crazy. ... I think our league is still underrated, and I think other leagues are way overrated."

Schlabach beats Whitlock for a) perspective and context, b) actually quoting a relevant person, and, above all, c) providing a useful segue via said quote to arguments abounding in the diary initiated this morning by Will from Royals Review, a site concerned with the intricacies of the stick-based sport vaguely acknowledged by SMQ for a total of about six total hours per season (seven this year, because he had a fantasy team, The Stoics, an offensive juggernaut that was one reliever from first place in a league of a dozen, mostly far more committed Pasttimers).

Schlabach: Paid. This is fine.

Will is a baseball fan with a beef, specifically against the "exposed" SEC, "irrational love" for which is "ruining college football," and calls for a scathing expose from SMQ - who, for the record, completely agrees. Except where he doesn't.

On one hand, commenter Raymond laboriously defends the SEC, and SMQ finds himself agreeing with him that it offers a slightly tougher gauntlet and takes on at least the challenges out of conference as other leagues. On the other, though, where he agrees with Will (a Notre Dame fan, which may or may not matter), it's true the SEC is a top-heavy league (Florida, Auburn, Tennessee, LSU, and, yes, Arkansas), and that its middle (Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and, yes, Kentucky) is a bit soft this year. And those alleged heavyweights aren't piledriving supposedly weaker foes into the ground: they're winning in the neighborhood of 26-20 or 25-19 or 23-17, or losing to the likes of Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Hell, Georgia has now lost, in the same stretch it beat MSU by a mere field goal, to Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Chicken or egg, though? Do Vanderbilt and Kentucky get credit for showing just how tough the league is all the way through, or are Georgia and Alabama proof the middle is really that weak? When Auburn struggles with Ole Miss, or Florida with Vandy, is this evidence of weakness at the top of strength of the bottom? Is this different than Ohio State struggling with Illinois, Cal with Washington, Wake Forest with Duke, Texas with Texas Tech or USC with pretty much everyone? Show your work.

The answer with every conference as far as SMQ is concerned is: probably some of both. Which is why SMQ has a larger problem with this business of comparing entire leagues, all of which are composed of the good, the bad and most of all the meh. What is the point of this? It's way, way too hypothetical and abstract for any substantial argument. Teams in the SEC are beating up on each other largely at random, but this is even more the case in the ACC and the bottom eight of the Big Ten and Big XII and has always been the case in the PAC Ten. Is the ACC bad? Why, then, is SMQ about to rank half of it in his upcoming BlogPoll ballot (seriously)? The winner of that upside-down mess has accomplished something. So has the champion of the Big East, which is ridiculed to the point that many attentive people wonder whether an undefeated champion from the conference has made as substantial an achievement as a one-loss team from the SEC or, possibly, the PAC Ten. But only certain one-loss teams from the SEC or PAC Ten - ask Arkansas or, going back a year, Oregon (and Cal, the year before that). SMQ thinks a team should be judged on their own merits, not those of its conference, and for the most part this is what actually happens.

Directly, this means Auburn and Florida get a lot of credit because they play LSU, Tennessee and one another, not because they play in the SEC. That sounds oxymoronic, but take a look, for example, at Ohio State: the Buckeyes do not play Wisconsin, pretty clearly the third-best team in the Big Ten, and therefore some abstract assessment of the conference's overall strength does not directly apply to OSU's schedule; even with Michigan, Ohio State's conference slate is probably about as difficult as any team's in the Big East (SMQ showed Sunday that, by season's end, Louisville will have played twice as many bowl-eligible teams as Ohio State). The same omission makes Wissconsin's schedule look awfully soft, too - but is the entire Big Ten soft, when slightly more than half its members are beating each other with little rhyme or reason? Or does the resulting win-loss ledger just make it look that way? In the SEC, Mississippi State's inter-divisions draws this year were South Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia, and Ole Miss has Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Georgia; Alabama and LSU each drew both Tennessee and Florida. Those aren't comparable schedules, even without looking at out-of-conference games, and the teams are in the same division. The Big East only has eight teams, but five of them (Louisville, Rutgers, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, South Florida) are already bowl eligible, with a sixth (Cincinnati) likely, an absurd percentage, and they all play each other. Who is willing to argue the Big East is stronger than the SEC?

Would any fan of any school in the Big East ever contemplate creating anything approaching the broadest description of this image? Case closed: SEC roolz!

So Tennessee crushed West heavy California. Go SEC! Southern Cal ripped up SEC leader Arkansas. Go PAC Ten! Which conference is better? Cal beat Minnesota. Boise State walloped Oregon State. At one end is Southern Cal, at the other is Stanford. At one end is Ohio State and Michigan, at the other is Illinois and Minnesota. At one end is Florida and Auburn, at the other is Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. At one end is Texas, at the other is Colorado. At one end is Louisville, at the other is Syracuse. Which end is the "essence" of the conference? What does the combination of Rutgers handily beating Illinois, Michigan State handily beating Pittsburgh and Iowa squeaking by Syracuse in four overtimes say about the Big East and the Big Ten? Not much. What does it say about those specific teams? That's a substantial debate. Texas getting past USC in last year's Rose Bowl doesn't prove any more about the Big XII last year than Ohio State beating Texas does this year, because Texas could conceivably beat every other team in the Big Ten.

If every team in the nation played every other team in a 118-game marathon, SMQ doesn't think the result would be much less of a hypothetical mismash. It's not that conference rankings aren't possible from analysis of individual teams, only that the differences in the outcome are negligible, almost certainly subjective to a fault, and even more certainly not relevant - not nearly so much as assessing individual teams, at least.