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Regard Your Ballot With Excessive Care, or, Any Given Saturday

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Part of SMQ's "Farewell Week."
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When I unveiled my preseason top 25 last week, I tried to do it in context of a conflict that seems inherent to any basically subjective ranking of teams -- especially in the preseason -- yet gets short shrift: what, exactly, are we ranking?

In no other sport does this question carry the weight it does in major college football, the only enterprise in the world that selects its nominal champion according to the arbitrary assessment of media types and coaches who almost universally spend their weekends focused on the specific game they’re working, and who must turn their ballots in under the heat of a deadline the discourages second-guessing, contemplation, deep comparison and/or below-the-surface analysis in favor of a quick glimpse at the final scores and a handful of highlights presented with little or no context. These few elite opinions, forged in a matter of hours -- maybe less -- are granted a total monopoly on opening the closing the gates to Shangri La (Presented by AT&T), but have never been charged with stating or adhering to any consistent criteria for the enterprise.

From the perspective of pure entertainment value, it’s one of the best set-ups in sports, if for no other reason than the enduring intensity of arguments such ambiguity always generates: was Oklahoma really better than USC in 2003? Were the Sooners better than Auburn in 2004? Was Michigan the better team compared to Florida in 2006? Did anyone really believe South Florida -- or, later, Boston College, then Kansas, then Missouri -- was actually the second-best team in the country when it briefly assumed the position last year? How could anyone deny that Georgia and USC were the best teams at the end of the season? These annual dilemmas require a consistent, systematic method, and the way a voter solves them says a lot about the way they look at the game.

But no one involved with any of the mainstream polls, despite their all-too-frequent use of the term, has ever defined exactly what they mean by the concept of the best team, or how they reach that judgment in comparison with that team’s peers. Most of the time, the terms are described in an abstract way, as a mental sum of perceived parts, as if there existed a secret rating system, EA Sports-style, that could settle the issue once and for all.

It’s this idea that led Kirk Herbstreit and other Big Ten-backers to endorse Michigan over Florida for the mythical championship game opposite undisputed No. 1 Ohio State in 2006, regardless of schedule, because the Wolverines were "just better" than the Gators. This was a serious argument, and an extremely close vote. Had Michigan won that argument, either the Wolverines or Buckeyes would have won a cataclysmic showdown and been dubbed "The Best" amid a shower of festively-colored corn chips, and no moderately serious person would even consider referring to the Big Ten, as Lindy’s did this summer, as "Charmin soft." The decision was largely arbitrary and political -- the main consideration of voters seemed to be less an endorsement of Florida over Michigan than that they didn’t want to facilitate a rematch, especially between two teams from the same conference -- but the result both in Tempe and in Pasadena, where Michigan was obliterated by USC, completely changed everyone’s very confident assumptions about "the best."

It’s this idea of inherent strength that works for well-regarded teams like LSU and Southern Cal, which, despite regular season stumbles to unranked teams, may still be endorsed because, on the average day, at full strength, they’re "just better" than everyone else, and deserve the one all-defining chance to prove it for eternity. This is probably intuitive and certainly sounds better than calling them the beneficiaries of specific sequences of unpredictable, chaotic and occasionally downright lucky events among comparably strong teams that subsequently fail to balance the arbitrary scales. Them’s the breaks, I guess, when you’re the best.

What seems closer to the truth is that there’s little to no difference in the potential of the top ten or dozen teams in the country, or between the next ten or dozen after them, or the next twenty or so after that, and so on, and the eventual order within these groups is nearly random -- the team or teams that emerge do so not as an inevitable result of superior talent and spirit (among 18-to-22-year-olds, these tend to be somewhat inconsistent concepts) but, taking ability, desire and preparation for granted, by a unique chain of events, some of them coincidental, some of them entirely outside of the team’s control (see: computers favoring Florida State over human favorite Miami after Miami beat FSU head-to-head in 2000, and Oklahoma over human favorite USC in 2003, and USC over Auburn in 2004; the door opened to Florida and/or Michigan by the Trojans’ stunning loss to UCLA in 2006; and the default baton-passing to LSU in the final hours of the regular season after losses by Missouri and West Virginia last year), but none of them preordained.

That is, assumptions about "the best" are frequently proven wrong by actual events. The best system, then, is not a rigid assessment of perceived strength, but an extremely fluid, strictly achievement-based approach that systematically rejects assumptions and accounts for chaos -- the inevitable black swan -- as the natural order. If South Florida’s resumé is the second-best in the country in late October, then yes, it’s the second-best team at that point. But probably not for long.

Not since Miami in 2001, or for years prior to that, has the difference in the split-second muscle twitches governed by hopeful strategies through thousands of snaps over hundreds of games been very obvious. For the rest, by some combination of achievement and attrition, being the best is about consistency, a little luck, and whatever else goes into just surviving.