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Friday, November 12, 2010

Tressel teaches, but can he be taught?

This Saturday as the ESPN Gameday crew heads to Columbus, OH, for the Ohio State-Penn State matchup, they will air a segment on a class that head coach Jim Tressel teaches to students who attend The Ohio State University on the theory and practice of coaching football.   I was able to read some of the finer points that ESPN will cover regarding the class via the Columbus Dispatch newspaper, whose headline article covered the very same topic.  After having read the article,  I walked away from it wishing I could audit the course on a pass/fail basis.  Alas, as the course is taught Mondays and Wednesdays during the fall beginning at 7:30am, there is a conflict with my work schedule that would prevent me from taking this course.  There is no doubt a lot to be learned from this course, I gather.   But there was an even bigger question that was nagging me when I had finished the article.  Coach Tressel no doubt passes along a sea of information to not only his students in this class, but also to his players on the field.  However, I have often wondered what lessons does Coach Tressel learn from his players?  From the media? And last, but not least, the fans, some of whom faithfully attend each home game, regardless of the Buckeyes record?

If I really wanted to know the answers to these questions, I guess someday I could rearrange my work schedule so I could attend his class.  Then again, they don't call him the senator for nothing.  Having worked two separate stints on Capitol Hill in Washington I am fully aware that public figures such as Tressel have to be careful what they say, regardless of the setting.  Therefore, even if I attended the class, I may not get the answer I was looking for when I ask him "how do you respond to those critics who say your team's schedule could be tougher?".  And of course if I push too much he might even kick me out of his class, as even attending The Ohio State University is a privilege, not a right.  So much for getting a glimpse into the thought process of the man dubbed "The Senator" via direct inquiry in his class.

Of course I might be able to gain some insight as to his thought process by just attending his class, soaking up all the information he passes along, and applying that information to what I see every Saturday in the fall when his team enters the stadium to play.  Ever since his first season as head coach, fans of Ohio State football have wondered why coach Tressel plays so conservatively, why he won't hire an offensive coordinator, and why The Ohio State University continues to schedule multiple nonconference games against significantly inferior opponents(many of whom reside in the state of Ohio).  And to a point Tressel has answered his critics on two of those three questions, and the media in  Columbus has often surmised at answers to the third question.  But attending a class taught by the coach would not only be beneficial in that I would see how Tressel views the x's and o's of the football field, but maybe get a glimpse into how Tressel sees his team as compared to the rest of the nation.

All of this leads me to the next question, which is: Tressel teaches many, both on and off the field, but can he himself be taught?  Can his players teach Tressel that running the same play over and over until it fails miserably might not be the best strategy?  Can the media impart to Tressel that OSU is not only the standard bearer for the state of Ohio, but also for the midwest and the Big Ten Conference?  And finally, can Buckeye Nation teach Jim Tressel that Woody Hayes was loved not just because he beat Michigan, but also because he led the Buckeyes to four National Titles?  The answers to all of these questions remain to be seen.  For starters, Tressel is adamant about reminding his fans and critics that life is bigger than the game of football.  Indeed it is.  Life will go on long after Ohio State football is a distant memory.   That is not to say that Jim Tressel is happy when his team loses.  Or that he intentionally calls plays "not to lose the game" rather than win the game.  It's just to say that a loss doesn't mean the end of the world.  Which, in the end, might be the biggest lesson that anyone could learn, even someone like him.

Friday, November 5, 2010

College Football 101: why computer rankings aren't really that objective either

Once upon a time, in the college football world, the major conferences got together and decided upon a format that would take the human element out of deciding who would play for the mythical national championship.  They called this format the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), with the idea being that the teams ranked nos. 1 and 2 in the final BCS ratings, would meet in the national championship game.

At the inception of the BCS, the top teams were determined by averaging a series of polls conducted by various media outlets, with the no. 1 and no. 2 rated teams having the highest average of these polls.  Strength of schedule was also factored into these ratings, as were rankings based on computer algorithms, but these components did not nearly carry as much weight as the human media polls.  Overall record played a role in the final BCS standings, as teams who had one or more losses were penalized for each loss on their schedule.

In 2005, the BCS championship would be decided in a game where undefeated USC defeated previously unbeaten Oklahoma for that year's mythical national championship.  There were many people, however, that felt the University of Auburn, who would also finish the season undefeated at 13-0, deserved to play in the national championship.  They argued that Auburn's strength of schedule was tougher than Oklahoma, and thus Auburn would have given USC stiffer test than the 55-19 blowout that the Trojans eventually administered to the Sooners.  They would further argue that the flaw in the BCS system was allowing human media polls to determine who would play for the national title, and the way to remedy this was to find a more objective way to determine who the top two teams in the nation were.

The BCS would respond by eliminating several of the human polls and revamping its ranking process.  In the new BCS rating system, only two human polls(the USA Today Coaches Poll and the Harris Interactive Poll) would be factored into the equation, along with six independently conducted computer-based rankings.  The top teams in the nation would then be determined by adding up each of the polls and then dividing by 100.  The two teams with the highest percentages would then play for the national title.

Fast forward to today, where the recent BCS ratings have TCU, Boise State, and Utah as numbers 3, 4 and 5 in the current rankings, despite playing weaker schedules than many of the teams below them.  Yes these schools are undefeated, and yes all of the schools ranked lower than them have at least one loss.  However, records don't tell the whole story in this case.

Take Boise State for example.  The Broncos are ranked anywhere from no. 4 to no. 13 in the computer polls.  That is quite a discrepancy.  For comparison sake, let's then look at Nebraska and Oklahoma, who at nos 7 and 8 are three and four spots below the Broncos, respectively.  Nebraska is ranked anywhere from 4 to 10 and Oklahoma is ranked anywhere from 4 to 11.  Both examples show a range of rankings but not a near a leap as it is from 4 to 13.  Why is there such a gap in the computer rankings of Boise then? That's easy: each computer ranking code is written by a different individual, who in turn places different weight on factors such as strength of schedule, quality wins, etc.  Wait a second, how is that any more objective than the media polls? There's the rub.  But there's more.

Utah, ranked number 5, does not currently have any wins over teams ranked in the BCS top 25 yet is ranked above several one loss schools that have multiple wins against the BCS top 25. What makes it even worse is that no poll (human or computer) has Utah ranked higher than number 6.  So Utah is rewarded because it has won all of its games playing against easier competition? Sound familiar? It should, because it is the exact scenario the BCS committee was trying to avoid when they created the new system.

So where does this all this fuss about computers leave the current state of the BCS? Imperfect, just like it was before, and, before the dust settles on this season, some team will win the national title while another team cries it was robbed.  One thing is for certain, fans of the current BCS ratings hoping that the computers would shed some objectivity on the situation have to be disappointed.