Highlights this week include: an update on the Narrative now that USC has lost; a few digressions therein; I take issue with a Tim Griffin "blog" post at ESPN; and I respectfully disagree with Orson Swindle/Spencer Hall on a point related thereto. Plus, the Undulating Curve of Media Hype and more. Click on through to keep reading!
Because so much happened this past weekend, I wanted to start out this week by updating the narrative that I laid out in last week's column. First of all, USC lost to an unranked Pac-10 opponent on the road. Again. (Hey, at least it wasn't to a 41-point underdog at home with its backup QB! Progress!) Jake Locker is a god (a slight exaggeration) and we finally saw why Aaron Corp got beat out for the starting QB job by a true freshman. Kudos to the Washington defensive coaches for making serious adjustments to the D-line (and continually subbing in fresh bodies with the zeal of Spurrier jerking around his QBs) after USC shredded UW with the running game early, thereby forcing the game into the hands of Aaron Corp. Solid defensive gameplan that USC never managed to work around because the Trojan coaches didn't trust Corp.
Now, to those of us that have been paying attention, this is nothing new. As Matt Hinton points out in that article, four years in a row USC has been ranked in the top 3 and lost a game to an unranked Pac-10 opponent. It's happened every year since USC lost the national championship game to Texas. Of course, in that same time span, USC has won every "big game" it's played (save for maybe at Oregon in 2007). USC literally has a better record against ranked teams over the last 4 years than unranked teams. And that's a tough dichotomy to work out of when you're thinking about how to treat that team in your head. The way the media has treated it has been to think of it under the following paradigm: (1) USC is obviously a great team or they wouldn't be able to beat all the ranked teams that they play, (2) therefore, when they lose, the story is about these unranked teams rising up and playing the games of their lives to topple the big, bad Trojans. It's a Hoosiers-esque "triumph of the underdog" story and it's one that has great emotional resonance.
And that's fine. These teams need to be recognized for their incredible efforts. But the problem with this paradigm is that it ignores the fact that USC is crapping the bed in these games. More than that, it ignores the fact that for 4 straight years, USC has crapped the bed at least once every season (and twice in 2006). But finally, after this loss to Washington, the media is making more than a cursory mention of this trend in its discussion of USC. In fact, sportswriters seem to be talking about USC's terrible play more than Washington's pluckiness (and they're not really even blaming that poor play on the absence of Matt Barkley). For his part, Pete Carroll is trying to get people talking about how good Washington is to deflect some of the blame (sorry coach, I love Jake Locker, but he is not the best QB you've ever faced), but it doesn't seem to be working. Here are some examples:
Welcome back to the center of the shame stage, USC. The Trojans ought to be familiar enough with the routine by now; I know I am, considering we went through the same reaction twice in 2006, again in 2007 and again last year. It's the Trojans' fifth loss as a double-digit favorite in four years, all of them utter jaw-droppers. The home collapse against Stanford two years ago -- when the Cardinal were also breaking in a brand new, young coach after a catastrophe of a season in 2006 -- was the greatest upset of all time; the Huskies were only half the underdog today (+19) that Stanford was then (+38), but that speaks far more to where the Trojans are now than the Huskies. And where that is, clearly, is in a near-constant state of vulnerability for a team that probably still deserves to be favored every time it walks on the field. --Matt Hinton (Dr. Saturday/Yahoo Sports)
As for Carroll himself, it proved to be another dreadful showing against an unranked Pac-10 opponent, and we've become very familiar with this act. Seen it so much I'm not sure anyone is that surprised any longer when something like this happens, even if it was a defeat to a team that just snapped a 15-game losing streak a week earlier.... [T]o me the question is whether the USC coaches are comfortable opening up their vertical attack with their inexperienced QBs. They really didn't seem that open with Matt Barkley, and it was even less so with Corp. And keep in mind, this clunker came against a Washington secondary that surrendered almost 350 passing yards last week to Idaho. Instead, USC managed only 110 passing yards, the fewest in the Carroll era. --Bruce Feldman (ESPN)
Since the start of the 2006 season, the Trojans' record against ranked opponents is 14-1 (.933 winning percentage). Their record against unranked opponents is 22-5 (.815 winning percentage). That's completely backward and points to chronic motivational problems when the opponent isn't a glam team. --Pat Forde (ESPN)
Carroll blamed himself after the game. Good. He was right. His fingerprints were all over a ridiculously conservative offensive game plan, a plan that caused his team to play tight when the Trojans found the Huskies surprisingly unyielding. --Ted Miller (ESPN)
The long-suffering Huskies deserve their upset for the ages. But the real story this week is about who they beat. It happened again. If you're not familiar with the redundancy, then dial up Jim Harbaugh or Mike Riley or what's his name who used to be at UCLA. Those three guys have all upset USC since 2006 -- Riley did it twice. When fans flooded the Huskies Stadium turf, Washington shocked themselves more than veteran USC observers. -- Dennis Dodd (CBS)
Don't blame this on the fact that USC was playing without starting quarterback Matt Barkley, because it still out-gained Washington. Don't blame this on a defense that was missing star Taylor Mays, because it still held Washington to barely 200 yards before its final drive.... Just two weeks ago, Washington had the nation's worst losing streak. Today, that title belongs to the man who has at least one national-title costing egg laid per season in each of the last four years, from UCLA to Stanford to Oregon State to this.
--Bill Plaschke (LA Times)
As you can see, the story about USC this year isn't about Washington pulling the miracle upset. It's rightly about USC crapping the bed yet again. And that's a change. One that will likely stay with the Trojans the rest of this year and, hopefully, into next year should they crap the bed again. Beyond that, as pointed out by Matt Hinton, USC frankly just might not be as good this year as they have been in the past. Their chances of playing in the national championship game have virtually evaporated. As usual, insane worrying about USC proves misguided and useless.
So where does that leave us with the narrative as it relates to the national championship game? Well, assuming Texas goes undefeated (which is a big "if" the way the offense is currently going), only one of Florida, Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss can go undefeated. If we assume that whichever one does (if any) will be ranked #1 (a safe assumption for UF and Bama, but not for LSU and Ole Miss), then the only teams Texas has any reason to be looking over their shoulder at are Cal, Penn State, and Miami.
Skip Bayless: "When Jordan Shipley ran dangerously close to Bevo's horns the other night in Texas-TTech game, I couldn't help flashing on MaryAnn's fate."
[I've always said that college football and True Blood are a match made in heaven. Thanks Skip!]
As I said last week, the 2004 season is a lesson in narrative that translates to this season so far. In 2004, USC and OU were ranked #1 and #2 all season and undefeated Auburn could not get past #3 despite also going undefeated. That narrative bodes well for Texas and Florida this season if they go undefeated. But as you'll no doubt recall, the reason Auburn could not break into the top 2 was that USC and OU did absolutely nothing to warrant being dropped, especially towards the end of the year. While USC was more or less guaranteed a spot by virtue of being #1 (and because they had been viewed as screwed the year before for being left out of the championship game--yet another positive narrative point for Texas), OU was ranked #2 and had been embarrassed the last two games of the previous season (losing the Big 12 championship game to Kansas State and the national championship game to LSU) and seemed ripe for being dropped in favor of Auburn. But OU dominated its late-season games and voters couldn't justify blowing up their whole (terrible, inertia-based) system of ranking teams unless they felt OU deserved it.
This matters to Texas and Florida right now because neither is playing particularly well. The 2004-style narrative only holds if the top 2 teams do nothing to deserve being dropped. Cal, Penn State, and Miami are not going to pass an undefeated Texas that is playing well. But if Texas is just barely winning all of its games, then maybe voters will feel justified as doing so. This would be exacerbated if Texas were barely winning its games in defensive struggles rather than offensive shootouts. Why? Because that contradicts the narrative of the Big 12 as an offensive league. The main feature of Texas' national perception is its offense. If Texas isn't scoring points like they were last year, then something's broken with the offense and that's a bigger problem than our good defense is a solution. The opposite is true of the SEC. See, for example, this "blog" post by Chris Low at ESPN lamenting the lack of defense in the SEC this year rather than noting that Gus Malzhan and Bobby Petrino are prowling the sidelines and the league frankly just has better offenses this year. Being good at something other than what people thought you would be good at is going to make them think that something's wrong, not that something's right.
So we're at a point where we just have to wait and see how this Texas team plays the rest of the season. If the Horns play well offensively, blowing out teams that it should by reasonable margins, then I don't think we have to worry about being overtaken by anyone. If the Horns play poorly, especially on offense, but still win out, I think we may have some competition from a team like Cal for a spot in the national championship game. It's early though. Much too early to be seriously worried about these "what-ifs."
Now, to break up this mass of text, I'm putting the Undulating Curve of Media Hype in the middle of the post this week. Don't like change? Deal with it!
Moving along to one other thing I wanted to get to this week, Adam Rittenberg, the Big 10 "blogger" over at ESPN raised a legitimate argument that Oklahoma and Ohio State have the same modus operandi when it comes to how they've fared the past four to five seasons, and yet their national perceptions have been vastly different. Essentially, his argument is: OSU and OU both win their conference most years, they both go to BCS games and lose them, they both struggle in big games, etc, but OSU is a national punching bag when it comes to big games and OU more or less gets a pass. He thinks this is unfair.
I agree with him, as I suspect most of you do. But before I get to that, I want to take to task Tim Griffin, ESPN's Big 12 "blogger" for his response. What was his response? Nothing. Here's a direct quote: "I'm not going to takes sides in his argument, other than to say he makes some interesting points." Um, thanks? What are you here for again? Now, there are several fundamental problems with ESPN's system of college football blogs. First and foremost is that they hired newspaper guys to run the blogs. Tim seems like a good reporter who's miscast as a blogger. He's essentially writing newspaper sidebars and disguising them as "blog" posts. But in this particular instance, my problem with his reaction is that he could have had a debate about the merits of Rittenberg's argument or done something else with it that would have been actually interesting to read, but he didn't. He linked to it and said nothing.
My guess as to why he did this isn't that he doesn't have an opinion on the matter, but rather that he agrees with Rittenberg, but he writes a blog ostensibly for and representative of all the Big 12 schools and he didn't want to offend OU fans and drive them away. This is absurd. First of all, people like Richard Justice have proven that all you have to do is offend your fanbase in order to dramatically increase your site traffic. And, more importantly, you should write about things that are interesting! That's what Rittenberg did and his post has been linked all over the internet where people are debating the merits of his argument and the reasons it may or may not be true. And you're response is to say "Interesting, but no comment"? Come on, Tim. Give me something I might care about here!
Now, moving along to one of those websites that linked to Rittenberg's post and analyzed it, Orson/Spencer over at EDSBS put forth some analysis (illustrated by a 1994-style Paint program and a serial killer analogy) saying that Ohio State's relative proximity to the media and population center of the east coast (compared to OU) renders the greater intensity of the criticism it receives for its big game losses. In short, more eyes are on OSU, so their failures are magnified nationally. Now, you should go read the article because, as always, it's hilarious (imagery of OU's ass vindaloo might very well ruin my favorite Indian dishes (lamb vindaloo, not ass vindaloo, sickos)) and Orson/Spencer is one of the smartest people on the whole internet. But here, I think he's flat-out wrong.
Rittenberg's premise is that OU's and OSU's failure in BCS and other big games has been near-identical while their success in smaller games has been nearly identical as well. Therefore, his argument is that the teams should be treated similarly. Orson is saying "maybe they should be, but the reason they aren't now and won't be in the future is that, geographically, more people live and more media operate closer to OSU than OU."
The problem with this argument is that because of the prominence of both OU and OSU, all of the big games that these guys play in are televised nationally. Obviously, all BCS games are televised nationally without any other games up against them, and all of both teams' big games are televised nationally (last year, OU's games against Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Missouri and Florida were all televised nationally, not regionally). In terms of big games, it doesn't matter whatsoever how far away one school is from population and media centers because anyone with a television can watch all of these teams' big games (and they don't even need cable to do so!). And these aren't games starting at weird times either. All the night games start at 8pm eastern and the day games no earlier than noon eastern.
Now, the only games that these teams play that aren't televised nationally are the lesser games, which are usually televised regionally (and can usually be seen on ESPN gameplan or on a local Fox affiliate). These are the games in which parochialism matters, but Rittenberg in effect said that OSU and OU play similarly in the little games as well (i.e. they win). But if the little games are the ones in which east coasters see Ohio State play and don't see Oklahoma play, then a greater percentage of people's perceptions about OU would be formed via their big game performance than OSU, and consequently, OSU would have a better perception nationally than OU.
Now, even though television sort of negates his argument of "eyeballs, eyeballs, eyeballs" (i.e. "There are more eyeballs toward the coasts, and thus more people to see your failures, document them, and mock you for them when they happen"), I understand that Orson is talking about more than just how many people SEE the games. Though he doesn't really mention it, surely he means that there are more people who CARE about what happens to OSU than OU simply because there are more people geographically closer to OSU. The problem with this argument is that it wildly overstates its case. Orson seems to have forgotten that three of the top 8 most populous cities in the US are in Texas (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio) and another two (Austin and Ft. Worth) are in the top 17. Now, I live on the Eastern seaboard and I can certainly tell you that this area is far denser than Texas and the rest of Big 12 country, no matter what the size of the cities. But I can also tell you that, north of Philadelphia (which is about even latitudinally with Columbus, Ohio), no one gives two shits about college football except for (1) small pockets of upstate New York (Syracuse) and Boston (BC), and (2) people who moved here from elsewhere (i.e., me).
Density of people in the aggregate doesn't matter. Density of college football fans is what matters. And that is much, much higher in Texas and surrounding areas than it is on the east coast. Same principle goes for media. The local news in New York City carries zero highlights of college football unless it's a championship game (too busy talking about how much the Mets suck). The local media in Texas, however, where millions of college football fans actually live, cover nothing but college football. The argument just doesn't work. And I suspect Orson will laugh at me for over-analyzing something he created in 5 minutes with a Paint program and a "Gainesville's best meth"-fueled flicker of infallible imagination. But it is what it is. You are a pundit, sir!
So if it's not Orson's explanation, then what is it? Why don't you guys have at it in the comments? Please don't say "Because the media is in love with OU." If you legitimately think that, then explain why and then we can have a discussion. But is it something with the media itself or something different about what OU and OSU are doing? Thoughts?