Is being undefeated the standard by which we judge championship teams now in college football? If it is, I think we're being a bit strict with our rules. In my eyes, undefeated seasons don't happen in a vacuum. Teams have to be very good, but they also have to be very lucky.
Look at USC last year. They survived a last-minute type scares against Stanford and California. Or look no further than the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes, who must have set some kind of record for close escapes. Rarely is a schedule so light that a good team can skate right through without several scares (Texas 2005 aside). Sometimes schedules are set up in such a way that a very good team often can't finish undefeated, yet some other team with a little lighter slate and a little better luck earns the spotless record.
But if that one or two loss team appears to be better, why are they not treated as better. There's some kind of reflex in all of us to say "but, team X is undefeated!" in response. I understand that, but sometimes that reflex is wrong.
This argument doesn't even have to be about undefeateds, but it can be about how we regard all teams. So often the polls just slot teams by loss. Is that accurate? I'm not always so sure. This week I have Notre Dame, they of two losses, at number four in my rankings, ahead of undefeateds Georgia and UCLA (as well as Alabama and one loss Miami). I think Notre Dame's simply better than those teams, but a rough early slate that saw them barely lose to a hot Michigan State offense and a juggernaut USC team by the narrowest of Margins has them with two losses. But I see beyond that. I think their team found itself and as they currently stand, I think they'd beat nearly everyone ranked behind them.
In fact, the Irish remind me a bit of the 2002 USC squad. Those Trojans lost early to Kansas State and Washington State before they really became the team they are now, and finished the season with eight straight wins. At the end of the year there was very little doubt in my mind they wouldn't have beaten both Miami and Ohio State. But in fact, they finished just #4 in the polls and BCS. That situation made me realize that how we have been going about this ranking process is egregiously flawed.
At the bottom of it, I think its because there are conflicting demands placed on us as to how we should view success in college football. On the one hand, we want to be as reasonably accurate as possible, and earnestly take into account all the factors that go into a team's season, from player health, coaching, schedule, rivalries and a host of other things. But another demand is to consider the season as the be-all, end-all, and knock teams for losses, because we don't have a playoff. That is to say, using the NFL as comparison, that whereas when an NFL team loses, its season isn't over, with a college team, they can forget about the big prize at the end of the season.
I guess I'm arguing that we should maybe slow things down and recognize teams for their inherent worth, and judge them as such. Maybe college football's Patriots lost a game somewhere this year. Shouldn't we still recognize such a hypothetical team as being of that quality? This is a hypothetical, of course, as I don't think this year's "Patriot" comparison (USC) has lost a game, but if that were to happen to USC, or someone down the road, I'd hope that we might get it right and still recognize such a team as a contender.
It did in fact happen in 2003 when USC lost to California, but only through a similar fate happening to Oklahoma and LSU in their seasons, did USC even have a chance at being considered championship worthy. To me this is an egregious reflection on how badly we've gotten in determining a team's worth of late, to nearly leave that kind of team out in the cold because what appeared to be at least one, if not two inferior teams ahead of it had the fortune of surviving their entire schedule.
Taking this model, and applying it to the real world, I offer you this: right now, as I see it, and unless things change fundamentally for these teams, I'm pretty content with going USC 1, VT 2, Texas 3. That's just how I view things, right or wrong. If Texas had lost last weekend, I'm not sure I would have moved them down. I'd obviously have had to observe how the game played out and if something fundamentally wrong with them had occurred that had not been there before. If not, I'd very likely have kept my ranking as such. The same goes for USC and Virginia Tech. Obviously between now and then, if that were to happen, I can change my mind, but I do my best to view these teams relative to each other, not solely in the context of their individual records, which can be deceptive.
This plays into other things that concern me, namely schedules. I'll get into that later, but to be brief on here, I think its funny when people talk about Texas and their weak record. Normally, I'm a big proponent of difficult out-of-conference schedules. I think it shows a commitment by an athletic department by having a serious OOC slate to expose its team to different situations and not just duck teams so that their program has a shot at a sneaky undefeated schedule. But, sometimes soft schedules will damn a team, as may happen to Texas this year. I think out of fear people rank teams with similar records by who they have played. This is a flawed approach, because it takes no interest in the fundamental strength of each team compared to the other. Schedules allow us to see how teams react to various kinds of opponents, their styles of play, their talent, their coaching, and how a team plays on the road. But judging a team solely on its schedule is particularly flawed.
I happen to think Texas is the third best team behind Virginia Tech right now, but its not because of their schedule. I trust my eyes in observing their games, and the things I've learned about football over the years, to make that conclusion. However, when the final BCS rankings come out and somehow USC, Texas and Virginia Tech are all undefeated, Texas may get the heave-ho because their schedule was viewed the lightest by the computers. This would be a mistake. The BCS will have gotten it right, but for the wrong reasons. It's not to dissimilar to what happened in 2003, when USC was left out of the BCS championship game because the computers felt their schedule was lightest. In reality, USC was a much better team than the two that finished ahead of them, but because the BCS could not take into account what USC was worth, compared to what Oklahoma and LSU were worth, it got things wrong. Just the same, when at the end of the year, if we look at those three teams and just compare schedules, we'll have gotten it wrong.