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Pundit Roundup Talks Narrative


Highlights this week include: some talk about the national narrative in college football and how that affects Texas' chances at reaching the national championship game; the Undulating Curve of Media Hype and more.  Click on through to keep reading!

I'm tired of people talking about "style points," both on this website and elsewhere.  (Though, to be honest, very few people talk about style points outside of FanPosts on BON.)  Texas fans have been in a frenzy over style points ever since OU won the tiebreaker last season, with some calling for Mack to run it up this season and others instead imploring him to keep it "classy."  It's an inverted echo chamber of nonsense, and it needs to stop.  The reason isn't so much that either side is wrong, but rather that it just doesn't matter.

First of all, Texas was done in last season by the computers, not human voters.  And as you no doubt recall, computers are not allowed to take into account margin of victory, and they still had OU ahead of Texas.  The human voters actually had Texas ahead of OU overall (albeit by a very slight margin) after the regular season despite all of OU's "style points."  Now, the argument could be made that those style points are what made the human vote close to begin with and Texas would have easily overcome their deficit in the computers if the humans hadn't been so impressed with style points.  And that may be true.  But my point is that a completely objective measure (whether it's right or wrong, it's not swayed by "style") had OU ahead and a mostly subjective measure had Texas ahead.  This despite the fact that OU's offense was throwing up 60 points per game every week towards the end of the year both in an attempt to woo voters and an attempt to not lose games due to their atrocious defense.  So if an objective measure that can't take into account "style points" has OU ahead and a subjective measure that can take into account "style points" has Texas ahead, how important can style points actually be?

Billy-zane_medium Hi, my name is billyzane and I'm calling for a moratorium on talking about "style points."  Furthermore, did you know that when I had hair, apparently I looked sort of like Marlon Brando? Who knew?

The answer to that is this: only as important as their place in the overall narrative of the season.  "Style points" have very little value on their own.  Any idiot voter can see that scoring 60 points on Idaho State isn't impressive.  But if the narrative of the season is, "Geez, this might be the greatest offense of all time," then scoring 60 points against a mediore to bad team is a story: "Well, OU did it again!  60 points for the 4th straight game!"  The narrative is what counts and "style points" (whatever the hell they even are) only matter insofar as they fit into that narrative.  Of course, scoring a ton of points had a lot to do with starting that narrative going in the first place (though it wasn't the only reason--the fact that the Big 12 was perhaps the greatest offensive conference ever and OU had the best offense in that conference had something to do with it), so it's a bit circular.  But the important thing to note is that Texas' narrative in 2008 "45-35!  We're getting screwed here!" won out over OU's narrative ("OMG.  Greatest offense ever!") when Texas won the human vote.

The preseason 2009 narrative started off as a national championship cerberus which neatly coincided with the top three Heisman candidates.  Florida was the "national champions returning everyone on defense and Jesus on offense."  Texas was the "team that may have gotten screwed last year and it out for revenge."  OU was the "team that lost the national championship but had players forego the draft for one last shot." Obviously, a few people made noise about USC and Alabama, but for the most part it was neat and tidy.  All Texas had to do was go undefeated, beating OU in the process, and they would be in the national championship game.  But then OU lost and Sam Bradford got hurt.  Now the narrative strength that would come from beating OU has diminished slightly if not entirely.  Everything is is flux and speculation about USC passing Texas even if both go undefeated runs rampant.  You know that old Hollywood adage (coined by William Goldman), "No one knows anything."?  That's true of college football too.  No one knows what twists, aberrations or tangles of football idiosyncrasy may come in the weeks ahead to distort the narrative further.  But we can still do our best to parse out where the narrative is headed now, where it might diverge in the future, and how this affects Texas' national championship hopes.


Bruce Feldman: Lost in Lubbock: 'Ur lookin for the Marsha Sharp Parkway... we re not naming roads after the bailiff on Night Court.'

[I don't really know why this is funny, but it totally is.]

Although the AP no longer has a say in the BCS rankings, and thus the media by and large does not directly affect the rankings, nothing drives the narrative like the media and nothing affects the prism through which voters perceive a team more than that media-driven narrative.  So let's see where we currently stand with the media's narrative.  You'll notice that I primarily talk about USC here.  That is because this narrative is predicated on Texas going undefeated.  If Texas does not go undefeated, then the narrative completely changes and we can talk about that situation if it arises (Personally?  I think Texas is probably screwed.).  So, if Texas goes undefeated, only one of Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss can go undefeated, and I think only undefeated Florida would be ranked ahead of Texas.  The only other potential threats to pass an undefeated Texas are from Penn State (won't happen because they play in the Big 10 and no one thinks fo them as a threat), Cal (a potential threat if they beat USC and go undefeated, but they're a threat to Texas for the same reasons as USC but to a lesser degree), and a mid-major like BYU.  I think BYU has a great shot to go to the national championship game if a bunch of teams lose.  BYU is not jumping an undefeated Texas.  Sorry, boys.  Thanks for beating OU though.  So that's where we are: in terms of teams that might jump an undefeated Texas, it's pretty much only worth talking about USC at this point.  Let's get to it.

The Good:

  1. Just about everyone in the media who's not senile (ahem, Beano and Lou) predicted a national championship game matchup of Texas and Florida.
  2. OU is, for the time being, no longer a part of the national championship narrative, leaving only a few teams to talk about.
  3. Everyone assumed a USC blowout of Ohio State and, though USC did win, they did not look particularly dominant in doing so.  Beyond that, at this point a victory over Ohio State does not have the same cachet that Texas' virtually identical victory over Ohio State in 2005 had.
  4. Texas still has the "we got screwed last year" narrative going for them.
  5. Thanks to the hype of USC/tOSU game and the Michigan/ND shootout, talk of Oklahoma State's loss to Houston has been far more muted than was talk of Oklahoma State's win over Georgia in Week 1.
  6. Colt McCoy vs. Tim Tebow is an extremely compelling storyline that is ready-made for the maudlin storylines that mainstream writers adore.
  7. Although at some point in the first half of this weekend's game, ESPN ran a headline saying, in effect, "Texas struggling with Wyoming," at the end of the game, the headline said "Texas Rolls" and, frankly, no one is talking about it.  Relatedly, because of Versus' contract disputes with DirecTV, a LOT of people did not see Texas' first half offensive struggles.  Um, thanks Comcast?
  8. Despite USC's big win (and Bama's victory over Virginia Tech), Texas is still ranked #2 in both the AP and Coaches polls.
  9. Texas has a primetime game on national television this Saturday with which to make a statement (a la the Missouri game in 2008).
  10. USC has games against a few Pac-10 teams that are a lot better than their national perception would indicate (i.e. Oregon State and Washington).  Texas' version of these games is against a team (Baylor) that at least everyone is talking about being a sleeper.  That is to say that USC's conference schedule is probably harder than it is perceived to be, while Texas' conference schedule might be easier than it's perceived to be.
  11. The Bad:

  12. Florida leads by so much in the human polls that, barring a Gator loss, they may be the only team that is assumed into the national championship game, and the #2 team may be thought to be up for grabs.
  13. The Big 12 seems to have taken a step back this year, at least in terms of national perception, with the losses by OU and OSU, plus the complete implosion of both Colorado and Kansas State.
  14. Formerly marquee games versus OU and OSU have lost some luster.
  15. USC plays Cal before Texas plays OU.
  16. Matt Barkley is, for some reason, considered by the media to be a golden god in the making.

Speaking of Matt Barkley, here is a chart approximating the level of his media hype during the Ohio State game, with an overlay showing the quality of both his and Joe McKnight's performances over the course of the game:


Well, that seems logical. 

Getting back to the narrative, there are, in effect, two types of media-driven narratives to consider.  One is the season-long narrative and one is the week-to-week narrative.  Texas should feel quite comfortable with the season-long narrative as the balance of evidence seems to still favor Texas.  First, the preseason narrative had Florida and Texas as the presumptive favorites and thus, if both of them go undefeated, I think the default position of the media would be that they should both be in the national championship game, even if USC is undefeated.  This notion is supported by the idea that McCoy and Tebow are both seniors and presumptive Heisman favorites while Barkley is a freshman and will have another chance (plus the McCoy/Tebow personal storyline).  Additionally, Texas is still viewed as aggrieved from the 2008 debacle and might be viewed as deserving of the benefit of the doubt.

All of this is to say that if Texas wins out, and does so while playing well, I don't think media members will start to advocate an undefeated USC over Texas.  Certainly some will, just as some probably would have advocated Penn State over Texas in 2005 had PSU not lost to Michigan on the last play of the game.  But just like that year, Texas entered the season #2 and a presumptive national championship game participant, and despite struggling some against Oklahoma State and A&M, were never really threatened by anyone (even before everyone else lost a game).  And contrary to vocal minority belief around these parts, the media is not in the tank for USC.  (Anyone remember the insane hype around Colt McCoy a few games into his freshman year? Or the fact that USC has finished the regular season with the same number of losses as a team that made the national championship game each of the last two years but wasn't the team chosen?)  When the narrative favors USC, then the media props that narrative up (remember, it's the narrative not the individual school). But this year, the narrative favors Texas and Florida, not USC.

Hey, You Know Who Doesn't Suck?

Those Versus announcers. I had to look up their names because I had no idea who they were, but Joe Beninati (play-by-play) and Glenn Parker (color) did a very competent, sometimes excellent, job of calling this game, giving frank assessments and often pointing out usually-overlooked things like a great block that freed a receiver.  I'm shocked when I get good announcers at all, and when I get them from a football outpost like Versus, well I'm flabbergasted but appreciative.  You paying attention Fox Sports?

However, and this is a large caveat, oftentimes the week-to-week narrative can overcome the season-long narrative if one team isn't holding up their end of that season narrative.  On the one hand, in 2004, USC and Oklahoma (the preseason 1-2) could not be overtaken by undefeated #3 Auburn because the Trojans and Sooners won all of their games that year by convincing margins: i.e., "We thought these teams deserved to be here to begin with, and they have done nothing to prove that they don't belong here so the team that gets left out is the one that we didn't think belonged here in the first place."  That kept the season-long narrative alive.  However, if OU or USC had faltered somewhat towards the end of the year (while still pulling out victories), then the media might have agitated in favor of Auburn and voters may have taken a look at how the teams were playing week-to-week and thrown out the season-long narrative.

To that end, the week-to-week narrative in 2009 will of course depend on how Texas and USC play in any given week, but there is a broad outline we can draw about how that might go.  First of all, Texas has a great chance this weekend in prime time on national television to show how dominant this team can be.  Considering Texas is still ranked #2 even after USC beat tOSU without the Horns playing anyone of substance, a win over a good conference team with the nation watching would go a long way towards pushing Texas higher in the rankings.  Beyond that, it would be great to have a dominant (semi-)signature victory before USC plays top-10 Cal on October 3.  The fact that this game comes before Texas plays OU may have a profound effect on the week-to-week narrative if Texas doesn't dispose of Tech handily. 

For that reason, to keep the season-long narratives alive, Texas needs to play very well against Tech.  They don't have to run up any score or get any "style points", but they need to win and they need to play well doing so.  USC plays a vastly improved Washington team this weekend that still has the stench of last year's 0-12 record.  I'm not saying Washington has much of a chance of winning that game, but Jake Locker is exactly the kind of mobile quarterback that Pete Carroll has had trouble defending (I've been saying this since 2007, but when you watch him play, he looks more like Vince Young than anyone I've ever seen; he's incredibly athletic, has the same slippery elusiveness that Young had, and frankly I don't think teams take him seriously as a runner because he's white).  A closer-than-expected Washington/USC game combined with a strong Texas victory rights the ship and I think Texas will be fine after that.

Now, to placate the "ZOMG STYLE POINTS!!1!"-style people that I respectfully disagree with, I will say that if this season devolves into a week-to-week narrative battle between USC and Texas, then "style points" (still not exactly sure what that means...) will probably play a part in how Texas and USC are viewed because after October, the only teams of any consequence that USC and Texas play are UCLA and Kansas, respectively.  It's a battle of who can beat up the bad teams better.

But the overarching point of this was to say that if Texas maintains a high level of play throughout the season, and as such maintains the season-long narrative of "we got screwed last year, we deserve this, and everyone knows we deserve this," then we have nothing to be worried about.  As I said earlier, even though a vocal minority around here likes to complain about the media being in the tank for USC, the past two seasons the Trojans have not made the national championship game despite finishing the regular season with the same record as a team that did.  Last year they did not pass Texas, Florida, Alabama or OU despite having the same number of losses, and the year before they did not pass LSU, Virginia Tech, OU, Georgia, or Missouri(!!!) despite having the same number of losses.  USC jumping teams with similar records is not only not a foregone conclusion, it's historically counterfactual!  Texas only has to worry about USC if they don't play up to their own high standard the rest of the year.

And finally, without further ado, but with apologies to New York Magazine and Adam Sternbergh, here is the Undulating Curve of Media Hype.  If you can't see it, click it and it'll open in full size.