Chapters 7 and 8 of The National Media and College Football
Chapter Seven: Language and the Realityof Unsaid Words
Another part of journalism that must bediscussed--and which is removed from various institutional, political and economic elements of the profession; it only focuses on the craft itself--is the use of words, of language.
At the heart of any story in any facet of journalism (even the broadcast side) are words. In tandem with pictures or by themselves, words pose powerful arguments, create vivid images, and set forth the parameters of a lively and robust discussion. Words capture the passion, pageantry, pain, and pride of the people who compete and perform every Autumnal Saturday. Words have an effect--just ask me or any other national college football journalist. The words we write on Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and Monday morning from September through early January draw responses from fans that are numerous and emotional. But beyond the raw numbers of passionate e-mails I receive, what strikes me more than anything else about the responses I get from college football fans is the fact that each reader takes my words in a particular direction.
In 2004, USC, Oklahoma and Auburn all struggled in their big rivalry games, all of which were on the road: USC at cross-town enemy UCLA, OU at Bedlam foe Oklahoma State, and Auburn at Iron Bowl archrival Alabama. After each of these games, I wrote a piece defending each of the top teams, and for the same basic reason: winning a rivalry game on the road is no small feat. Yet, after all three of these games, I got e-mails from the fans of all three teams--the Trojans, Sooners and Tigers--saying that I praised the winning team too much, and that I overlooked the other two teams when they did the same thing. Yes, I also got supportive e-mails from the fans of the winning team who thanked me for making their case (not that I'm in the business of making the case for fan bases; if I perceive a game in a certain way, I'll write what I perceive--that's what my "instant analysis" pieces are supposed to involve), but it was overwhelming--though perhaps not surprising, for all reasons stated up to this point--that so many fans in other sections of the country would invest such heated emotions and specific perceptions of language into e-mail letters about a game their team did not play.
In November, early December, and then before and after the Sugar and Orange Bowls in very early January, virtually every piece I wrote about USC, OU or Auburn generated four fundamental kinds of responses that applied fairly consistently to each of the three teams. What would apply to a USC piece would also apply to stories written about OU and Auburn. As an example, if I wrote a piece that praised USC even while noting some of the Trojans' perceived weaknesses, the four basic kinds of responses I got would be as follows: 1) USC fans thanking me for praising the team; 2) USC fans ripping me for not praising the Trojans enough, and generally being way too nitpicky in dissecting the poorer elements of their performance and overall quality; 3) OU fans ripping me for giving USC way too much credit and underselling the Sooners' close shaves; 4) Auburn fans ripping me for giving USC way too much credit and underselling the Tigers' close shaves. You can keep score pretty well: fan responses to Monday columns and instant analysis pieces offered a split verdict on the team directly involved in the game, and a unanimously negative verdict from the two other teams not involved in the game, but whose fate was affected in the BCS race by the game's outcome. Language that tried to make one basic point about one team's overall quality after the conclusion of one game was perceived in four different ways by three different fan bases. Does anyone see anything wrong with this picture?
Fans--and as someone who was a fan before I became a journalist, I can relate to this feeling--passionately hold extreme viewpoints that are favorable to their team, conference or region. One of the main jobs of any sports journalist, in college football or any other sport, is to set aside personal passions and preferences and see things for what they are, based on careful observation and cultivated experience as a journalistic practitioner. This is particularly true of a national journalist, who surveys the entirety of the sport instead of being assigned to cover one team on a regular basis.
In my own conversion from fan to journalist--or perhaps, as someone who has to juggle the two elements (for the fan in each college football writer never truly goes away)--I have had to gradually accept the centrality, primacy and necessity of being able to play defense and run the ball. As a fan, I always gravitated to the passing game and offense (and to a certain extent, I still do), but my place as a journalist has demanded, both professionally and intellectually, that I grow to the extent that my analysis can coherently and knowledgeably speak about the importance of power running, defense, special teams, field position, and various other facets of football. If my stories, particularly in the realm of game analysis, stem from one narrow perspective that views passing offense to be the only measure of football excellence, my analysis will clearly suffer, and readers will be able to see as much. It's much the same way with teams and conferences.
As a Catholic, it's always been important for me as a person to hold NotreDame's football program to high moral standards from the institutional side (as I did when I criticized the firing of Ty Willingham in early December of last year). But when I entered the hot seat that comes with being a national college football writer, my disapproval of the Irish's institutional maneuvers over the past 15 years has had to be pushed aside whenever I've had to analyze a game involving Notre Dame. I could not allow my strong disagreementswith the larger entity of Notre Dame Football to interfere with my analysis of the smaller realm of the Notre Dame football team on Saturdays. Journalists are passionate fans and emotional human persons just like everyone else, but when moments of truth arrive--the kinds of situations that demand objectivity and a clear segmentation between personal hopes and professional responsibility to one's editor, publisher and readership--the objective detatchment and neutral professionalism have to kick in. I'd like to think, then, that in each and every piece I write, I try and assess a team for what it is, and a game for what it was--nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. This is what makes it hard for me, as anational journalist, to take criticism when OU and Auburn fans light into me for a measured and responsible piece in which I praised USC.
It's not that I can't take the criticism myself, as a person--that's not the issue. What hurts me is the fact that as a journalist, my professional identity and personal integrity are assailed, and almost automatically so, for the ways in which I use the English language. What I write and how I write--both the content and methods that go into my stories--come under fire on many occasions for the simple fact that I'm a national journalist at a time when the profession of journalism is viscerally hated, given the poor performance of journalists in the political, military and economic arenas. I suffer in the college football world for journalistic sins in other facets of life that have caused the reputation of the business to sink like a rock throughout America. So how can I write some meaningful words about the meanings of the words I regularly write each Saturday evening and Monday morning?
Pushing aside any inherent feelings about the profession of journalism--which we all know to be poorly practiced on many levels--college football fans need to realize one very simple thing about the workings of college football journalism that mirrors the world of hard news journalism: good or bad, positive or negative, any journalist can only write about one subject at a time... even in a notes column. One thing that affects national dialogue about politics and morality in America is also true in the world of college football: points made about one topic are easily and routinely perceived as being commentaries about other issues, groups and people.
In national political discussions (this particularly applies a lot to matters of race and religion), making a comment about one group of people is almost automatically seen as being a triple commentary on that group's allies and adversaries. If you say something about secular liberal groups, a great many readers will immediately fill in the blanks and presume that you hold a corresponding view of (especially) Christian conservatives and (less certainly, but still probably) progressive Christians. Similarly, in college football--at least with respect to the 2004 season--a comment about USC was immediately perceived as being a triple commentary on Oklahoma and Auburn as well. This dynamic, which especially applies to the journalistic realms of editorial commentary and news analysis (not straight reportage), has to stop, and pretty quickly.
It's really quite simple: when I write about a game USC played, any comments about USC should be construed as applying only to USC. The same principle should apply to anything I write about OU or Auburn. In future seasons, anything I write about any of the three or four teams who compete for the BCS title game in late November and early December should not be viewed as triple or quadruple commentaries on the other teams involved. Languages, and the words within them, can only describe multiple subjects if the user of the language wants them to. If I want to make one comment on USC, OU and Auburn at the same time, I will arrange my words and phrasings to achieve that purpose. On a very similar note, if I want to lump together criticism of one team with praise of another team, I'll also take care to do just that.
The Cal-Texas Rose Bowl ruckus was a perfect example of how readers in Austin perceived sympathetic comments toward Cal, or comments critical of the BCS system, to be anti-Texas comments. Insteadof being allowed to be wrong, or being allowed to let my BCS bashing be just that--BCS bashing, and not pro-Cal or anti-Texas commentary--the folks who bled Burnt Orange read a whole number of meanings into my pieces that just weren't there. Those meanings would have been expressed had I chosen to say as much. My words could only mean one thing for certain, but Texas fans insisted that my words meant other things.
If I said that Cal coach Jeff Tedford showed admirable restraint for not politicking or running up the score (against Southern Miss), Texas fans thought that I disapproved of Mack Brown's politicking. If I said that the BCS system was wrong for involving politics to an unseemly extent, Texas fans thought that I disapproved of Mack Brown's politicking. Yet, I never said I disapproved of Mack Brown's politicking. Had I been in hisposition, I'd probably lobby my fellow coaches as well, given that Texas had indeed received the short end of the BCS stick in previous seasons. Despite the fact that in a late-season Tuesday Question, I ultimately said that Texas deserved the Rose Bowl more than Cal, the fact that I excoriated the BCS for undermining the Big Ten-Pac-10 Rose Bowl tradition was a clear sign, in the eyes of Longhorns fans, that I was set against Texas's place in Pasadena.... and against Mack Brown's politicking. You can see where this is going, don't you? If college football fans can't allow journalists to be wrong, and can't treat comments merely for what they are on the immediate subjects at hand, national college football writers such as myself will have to dumb down our writing. And as a proud print journalist, I can say that dumbed-down language is for broadcasters. Sportswriters paint pictures with words, conveying the full meaning of a story beyond the immediate images that emerge in a game. Being able to tell the "back-story," and tell it with color, depth of detail, and a literary flourish, brings college football--not to mention any other human endeavor--to fuller and richer light. The reader of the words in a print story is enriched far beyond the level that a TV or radio broadcast can provide. Television has the power of the picture, and radio has the power of the immediate emotional voice responding to events as they happen. Print journalism's power, however, lies in the written word, and if readers can't allow journalists to mean what they say and say what they mean--reading nonexistent meanings into the words that flow from writers' keyboards--print journalism will lose its reason for existing.
A note about CollegeFootballNews.com is merited at this particular point. The enduring appeal of CFN, and the biggest, most impressive element of its legitimate journalistic quality under editor and publisher Pete Fiutak, is that all CFN editorial content--from Fiutak himself along with the stable of writers under his direction (including me)--is that we respect the intelligence of our fans. We at CFN--and I can honestly say this about all writers at the website--do everything in our power to avoid writing basic, boring, predictable, cookie-cutter articles about everything in college football. Every CFN story is written with passion, and has a literary voice that sounds like a knowledgeable fan, only with the requisite dimensions of journalistic polish and linguistic flair. We don't offer tired, old recaps of events, because we presume you saw them (because, after all, we know that you're a huge college football fan just as we are). We don't repeat or adhere to conventional wisdom (a huge disease infecting national political journalism in America). We avoid easy, tidy conclusions. We offer in-depth explanations that go far beneath the surface of events and realities affecting college football.
Unlike many pollsters in both the writers' and coaches' polls, we have a culture of editorial independence and freedom at CFN that creates a very open-minded collection of writers who are willing to change their views when they see compelling reasons to do so. CFN writers don't put teams in certain poll positions at the start of the season and automatically keep them there. We're always reassessing and reevaluating the evidence in front of us. Why? Because we have to. We can only comment on the next game, subject or debate that is in front of us--each Saturday, each week, each season. College football, like anything else in life, is damn complicated, and the process of analyzing the games and politics that are part of the sport is therefore a very complex exercise. Because of the confusing and perplexing nature of college football, any piece of news analysis or editorial commentary has to be viewed simply for what its words suggest, and nothing else. If I make a comment about one subject, that comment should be interpreted in light of that one subject. If I make a comment about two or three topics, that comment should be viewed with respect to the two or three topics mentioned, and not a fourth or fifth issue. In conclusion, words about one subject are words that are absent with respect to other topics. The presence of words in one area of discussion necessarily creates the absence of words in other realms of debate. It is only when I, the writer, speak about those other topics--filling in words where they previously didn't exist--that the reader can then presume that I have an opinion about those topics. Therefore, unless or until I specifically address a given topic, one should see the lack of words and not put anynew ones into my mouth. They're not my words--or the words of any other national college football journalist--until they get published... or, perhaps, until the reader asks a polite question in search of that opinion. Making conclusions about unaddressed topics is something that has to stop. Comments about individual topics have to be allowed to stand on their own, without any pre-judgments about how those comments might affect other opinions on other subjects.
Chapter Eight: Football and The Vision of Something Better: How to Create Objective Standards for College Football Analysis
Until this point, we've talked almost exclusively about journalism--partly from the college football side and partly from the hard-news side that deals with politics, the military, the economy, and other spheres of life outside the sports world. But now, as this book winds its way toward a conclusion, it's high time to talk about football within a journalistic context. In order for me and other national journalists to better cover college football, and for readers to better understand college football, we need to establish and develop some new standards we can use to analyze college football games, and then college football seasons.
It's bad enough that college football journalism is an opinion-dominated profession, but it's even worse that the community of college football journalists--broadcasters and writers alike--has not had an extended, detailed and meaningfulconversation about football analysis, and more specifically, about the components and standards that are used to determine various levels of football excellence. Why do we need to have this discussion? First, let's consider the art--not the science, but the art--of game analysis. If you ever doubted the ability of statistics to grossly deceive you before this 2004 college football season, those doubts should no longer exist. A number of games played this past Autumn represented classic examples of the lies, damn lies and statistics that get in the way of clear-headed, objective football analysis. As one of my Monday Morning Quarterback columns indicated, one day from the season just past (October 9, 2004) offered a day with three such number-bending, brain-busting games that defied easy categorizations or easy answers:
Boy, this weekend was the pigskin laboratory that makes college football sucha fun--yet inexact--sport to dissect. In the NFL, the talent levels are so even, the offensive styles so homogenized, the business so copycat-driven, that a lot of the "standard" football rules apply: conventional wisdom holds in a lot of ways at the NFL level. But in college football, it's a different world. The disparities in talent, styles, team personalities, conferences, media exposure--in short, everything--make this sport much, much harder to judge with a uniform set of standards. Let's lock the doors, sit around a table, and talk some football, because there's a lot of explaining to do.
Minnesota outplayed Michigan Saturday. That was the conclusion reached by thiswriter when the game ended. Had I been able to read a stat sheet, the conclusion might have been different. But you know the old line, don't you? There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Okay, so Michigan had more yards--it's been a point of religion for Wolverine backers to use Michigan's one-yard rushing advantage as a reason why they outplayed the Gophers. One yard equals superiority! Imagine that! Aha, but what about meaningful yards? Michigan's huge problem was that it moved the ball between the 30s, but didn't do a consistent job in scoring territory. Considering that Michigan has the superior beef up front, should it be considered that stalled drives equate to Wolverine control of the balance of play? That's just one of several questions one ought to ask when considering who outplayed whom in this ballgame.
Many other folks who bleed Maize and Blue brought up the point that the Wolverines' huge edge in time of possession clearly proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Lloyd Carr's crew dominated Minnesota. This brings up a five-alarm red-alert point: time of possession is THE most overrated stat in college football, hands down. In the even-steven world of the NFL, where offenses and personnel are so similar, time of possession matters a lot more than in NCAA Land. To illustrate this point, consider the saga of Steve Spurrier with Florida and then the Washington Redskins.
With the NCAA Gators, Spurrier wanted the ball as many times as he could get it, but he didn't want to use time when he got the ball. Florida's great teams, blessed with ridiculous quick-strike capability, rolled up points instead of controlling the ball. Spurrier didn't want to win the time ofpossession battle; he only wanted his defenses (well, make that Bobby Pruett's or Bob Stoops's or Jon Hoke's defenses) to give his offense as many touches as possible, so he could "hang half-a-hundred" on SEC rivals. But with the NFL Redskins, Spurrier's philosophy became a plainly bad fit for a league where, Xs and Os aside, his defensive players--paid hugely by Daniel Snyder, just like his offensive players--revolted internally and externally when the ball was thrown too much. On the other hand, when Spurrier ran the ball into the line to consume clock, the bland as molasses brand of ball improved the mood of the locker room immensely, because the defense was staying fresh and the team was minimizing its mistakes. In the cookie-cutter, punch-the-time-clock, just-win-baby culture of the NFL, players don't mind at all if boring and bland wins ballgames. But since that kind of ball didn't offer the creative kind of challenge Spurrier sought from the NFL, he walked away from the league on his own terms, a powerful statement about the differences between each style of football.
So back to Minnesota-Michigan. The Gophers were a more efficient team, maximizing output from the yards they gained, and coming up with more long plays than Michigan. The Wolverines racked up yards because they had the ball more, but they had the ball more because Chad Henne threw a ton of passes, two of which were picked in the second half, giving Michigan more chances to stop Minnesota and hand the ball right back to Henne. See how circular these patterns can be? Henne was outstanding in the first half, but in the second half, he lost his edge. Why he did is another conversation for another day, but the story is that he lost it. Both of his interceptions were poor ones, and they both came when Michigan had the ball around the Minnesota 30. One must ask this question: how many times must a team fail to score after reaching the opponent's 30-35 yard line for it to be considered poor offense instead of "good but not great" offense?
The whole measure of an offense should be its ability to score, and to make plays when the field shortens, making it more of a challenge to crack a defense. If an offense moves the ball at will for the first 70 yards of the field, but then fails to score, is that an example of the offense largely outplaying the defense? This columnist can't take that view, unless the given football situation demanded only that the offense gain field position or eat clock with a drive. If Michigan led by nine points with six minutes left and drove 65 yards in five minutes before throwing a pick deep in Minnesota territory, that could be considered a win for Michigan's offense, or at least a draw, because the offense did what needed to be done under the existing conditions of the game. But in the second half, Michigan's offense repeatedly failed to do what needed to be done until the very end.
So let's take a deep breath and look at the big picture: Michigan showed more mental toughness, more late-game resolve, and reaffirmed the fact that it knows how to win, something which Minnesota still lacks. It's to Michigan's and Chad Henne's credit that they were able to come through when the game's outcome hung in the balance. But all those deserved accolades don't automatically mean that most of the game's first 55 minutes were controlled byMichigan. Minnesota didn't steamroll or dominate the Wolverines, but the Gophers were more opportunistic, frustrating Michigan and holding a command position before the final minutes, when the Gophers blew it. If one looks at composite stats from the whole 60 minutes, one might think Michigan badly outplayed the Gophers. But if you break the game down into quarters or even individual possessions, you get a fuller feel for the ebb-and-flow of the game and all the specific situations in which each team had to operate. Being able to look at a game in sections provides a much more accurate picture of how each unit--offense, defense and special teams--performed in the face of certain situations. For most of the game, Minnesota achieved more situational goals and objectives than did Michigan. That's why it can be said that Minnesota outplayed Michigan... but not that it meant anything in the end.
Gopher and Wolverine fans should stick around and read further while some other intriguing case studies are briefly mentioned from this past Saturday: Cal had pretty good time of possession against USC. Yards? Cal more than doubled the Trojans. We all know about Aaron Rodgers' 29 of 34 completions. But Cal scored just 17 little points! The stats are all well and good, but how the heck do you outplay USC, not have any turnovers from your offense, and lose with just 17 points on the board? Jeff Tedford, unlike Steve Spurrier, valued time of possession more than the number of possessions. Cal's coach made a calculated risk of keeping his passing game short to control the ball and keep it away from Matt Leinart and USC. This strategic focus places all the game's stats in a very different light. You just can't look at the box score and, in a limited, narrow-minded and linear kind of way, conclude that Cal outplayed USC. The take here is that this game was a stalemate between the offensive and defensive units, with USC's cleaner special teams giving the Trojans a slight edge. Cal made more mistakes in a roughly even game. USC slightly outplayed Cal simply because the special teams blunders wound up being the difference. Had Rodgers gotten a late winning touchdown, one could then say that those stats had some measure of real value. But Rodgers didn't do what the situation demanded.
Furthermore on Cal-USC, after weeks of scrutinizing and critiquing the Trojans, it has to be said very plainly that this was an awesome win for Pete Carroll, Matt Leinart, and all the rest of the Men of Troy. Because of the quality of Cal's defense and the ferocious nature of this game, being quietly opportunistic was and is nothing to be ashamed about. One has to keep coming back to the central theme of doing what the situation demanded, and except for his end zone pick, Leinart did what the situation demanded. His receivers still aren't where they need to be, but Leinart didn't have the rough edges of previous performances against Va Tech and Stanford. With Rodgers completing all his passes, Leinart didn't try to be the hero; instead, he turned into a workmanlike team leader in a game where winning was all that mattered. Leinart won. USC fans shouldn't be hearing how Cal outplayed them; they should be hearing how the Trojans just keep fighting off the challenges--and challengers--that keep coming their way.
Wolverine and Gopher fans, stay with me a little while longer, please. Did any of you stay up to watch the LSU-Florida game? Florida reached the LSU 36 on several different occasions, and the Tiger 40 on a few more, but never scored on those possessions, much like Michigan failed to do on a number of occasions against Minnesota. So were the Gators carrying the play in those sequences, or was LSU's defense winning the battle? Then again, LSU outgained Florida fairly substantially and had its own set of botched, scoreless possessions that reached the Gator 30 or thereabouts. So should the yard advantage mean LSU outplayed Florida? And then there's the matter of JaMarcus Russell's two bad picks. Should the fact that Marcus Randall came in and played well mean that those picks really shouldn't matter much when assessing the game? Should the fact that Florida's defense gave way at the end render that unit the goat of the game, or should the fact that the Gator defense held off LSU for so long indicate that Florida's defense was actually rather heroic?
As you can see, these are complicated questions that don't have easy answers. But as Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lotby watching," and if you watch college football long enough (or any sport, for that matter), you'll eventually be able to look at games beyond the stat sheet or box score. Your familiarity with various schools, conferences and programs can enable you to take a game such as Minnesota-Michigan and make an informed decision about the storyline of the game. Watching college football intently for the last ten years (I don't think I was terribly analytical when I was in high school, so anything beyond the past decade wouldn't really count), I've seen enough of both Minnesota and Michigan--knowing their histories, tendencies and track records under Glen Mason and Lloyd Carr--to look at Saturday's battle and come to the conclusion that it was more of a "Minnesota, on the verge of victory, loses itsnerve" kind of game than it was a "Michigan, dominating all day, does the expected to win at the end" kind of game. The one storyline--centering around but not necessarily complimentary to Minnesota--was a better fit than the other.
From that column, whose truths only seem more affirmed now than they did then, the biggest and most important reality I can possibly re-emphasize is this one: "These are complicated questions that don't have easy answers." The purpose of discussing how to analyze a game--and how to establish and arrange a set of standards for conducting game analysis--is not to suggest that my particular standards are right or correct, more than anyone else's personal standards. No, my aim is to simply get the college football community, and especially my fellow journalists, to seriously question and think about what it means for one team to outplay another. We, as college football journalists, ought to have this discussion, so that we can serve our readers better and try to offer an even more objective way of dissecting a sport that, as previously established, is incredibly subjective and hard to pin down.
Will a discussion completely eliminate the subjectivity that exists in the world of college football analysis? No. But extended, ongoing and ground-breaking dialogue and debate will certainly have the benefit of educating fans, thereby giving them fewer reasons to think that college football journalists are biased or sloppy. When this happens, college football journalists willgain added credibility and find the freedom to have more expansive football discussions that respect the intelligence of fans. This, in turn, will shed even more light on the football discussions that go beyond game analysis and touch on issues such as nonconference scheduling, strength of schedule, strength of conference, margin of victory, and the various other factors that need to be analyzed with more clarity, objectivity and emotional detatchment. If we can ever get to a point where these kinds of football-specific issues can be discussed in fair, levelheaded and transparent ways, free of the clouds of media bias or institutional greed, the BCS title game and major bowl game debates that are (unfortunately but undeniably) a part of our sport will then become honest discussions instead of the political and emotional shams they currently are. And the only way tobegin the long journey toward cleaning up college football debates is to initiate meaningful new discussions that need totake place.
It's not about immediately insisting on new standards or right answers--they're elusive, at least at this point. It's merely about re-examining and questioning old and long-held assumptions about the representation of genuine dominance and excellence in football games.Why do we need to question and re-examine long-held assumptions about the real meaning of dominance and excellence infootball games, and by extension, football seasons? One game from the 2004 college football season--even more than Minnesota-Michigan, Cal-USC, and LSU-Florida--showed why. Let's go back to the MondayMorning Quarterback archives, this time from Nov. 13 of 2004, to explore a confounding Morgantown mystery that proves, once and for all, why college football journalists need to initiate new discussions... and why fans need to rethink old thought patterns with an open mind:
We've had this conversation all year: just exactly what does it mean to outplay a team? More yards and physical dominance? More big plays and fewer turnovers? Longer drives or shorter drives? More explosiveness or more consistency? Hanging in when you're making mistakes, or not making mistakes in the first place? There's no set standard, no one set of rules for making this determination. And until we have one uniform set of guidelines for doing this, football analysis will always--and should always--remain a much more nuanced and complicated business than some folks would want you to believe. Simplicity--while desirable and, moreover, necessary to a certain extent in life--is elusive in a larger sense. Just as people will never be the way we want them to be (something that would make life much simpler and more clear-cut), and just as life can never be free of stress or hardship or uncertainty (unless you become a hermit or seek a monastery in the middle of nowhere, and even then you're not assured of anything), football analysis can never and will never be free of ambiguity or complexity. Just look at the Boston College-West Virginia game this past Saturday, a game which stands as the ultimate testament to how the numbers can often mean absolutely nothing in the attempt to identify which team outplayed the other.
Total yards? 469-248, Mountaineers.
Rushing yards? 246-67, Mountaineers.
Passing yards? 223-181, Mountaineers.
Completions? 21-19, Mountaineers.
Yards per rush? 5-even to 2.1, Mountaineers.
Yards per pass? 6-even to 5.8, Mountaineers.
Time of possession? 34:17 to 25:43, Mountaineers.
Final score? 36-17, Golden Eagles.
Two punt returns for touchdowns and a plus-three turnover differential won the game for Boston College--that, and basic opportunistic play that will never show up in the box score. West Virginia had four drives blunted in BC territory: at the 47, 42, 41 and 33, with a field goal coming from the BC 8 when the Mountaineers, down 27-14 in the fourth quarter, needed a touchdown. The Eagles used their special teams dominance to collect field goals after great drive starts, and on the very few occasions when BC put together a sustained drive, they finished what they started by posting a fat "7" on the scoreboard. West Virginia had more snaps and more yards, but whenever the Mountaineers needed to make a big play, they didn't. Whenever BC needed to make a key statement, they did. That's the essence of outplaying a team: not dominating per se, but dominating when absolutely necessary; not running for 12 on 1st and 10 at midfield in the first quarter, but throwing for 6 on 3rd and 5 in the red zone in the third quarter of a tight game. Being opportunistic and efficient aren't the kinds of characteristics you can easily reduce to numbers, but they epitomize that fine line between winning and losing that shows up every week, and which--as the (positive) example of Texas and the (negative) case of Minnesota remind us--you can't conveniently explain in a neat, tidy display of clean, linear logic. The final verdict on how to identify the teams that outplay their opponents is simple: don't have any one preconceived formula or standard. Be open-minded when making such a determination. The Eagles and Mountaineers are to be thanked for driving home the need to reserve judgment--and think on a much deeper level--when delving into the realm of football analysis.
So let's delve some more, shall we? Again, one can't readily impose any standards, but we, as a community of college football journalists, need to begin to discuss them, transparently and openly, in front of our readers and viewers. College football fans across the country might say they hate us, but they nevertheless rush to hear what we have to say, either to justify their own football arguments or to show their friends on message boards that the media is biased against them. Either way, articles have a way of reaching large populations: they're intensely discussed, for better or worse. Journalists, then, might as well make their articles better, providing analysis and argumentation that are hard to pigeonhole or easily categorize. Therefore, in the name of better college football analysis, let's pose the following questions:
When do turnovers overtake total yards as ameasure of performance? Louisville had at least 250 yards more than Boise State in the 2004 Liberty Bowl, but four more turnovers as well. How do you wrap your analytical mind around that kind of a game? Do you say UL was better because of the yards, or that Boise was up to the task because the Broncos forced four turnovers? Or is it somewhere in between? Or somewhere not in between? When do turnovers overtake time of possession as a measure of performance? When do points overtake total yards as ameasure of performance?
When do big plays overtake sustained drivesas a measure of performance? When do single-play touchdown drives overtake 15-play field-goal drives as a measure of performance? (When do the field goal drives overtake the single-play TD drives?)
When is an offensive line dominant, and when is a defense good at bending but not breaking?What is the point at which a bend-but-don't-break defense becomes a plainly weak and poor defense? What is the point at which a ball-control offense becomes effective? Ineffective?Powerful? Impotent? What is the point at which an explosive offense becomes powerful? Impotent? Effective? Ineffective?
Is it a sign of dominance or luck for an offense to convert three straight 3rd and 10 situations after getting smothered on the three previous 1st and 2nd down plays in each series of downs? Is it a sign of bad luck or ineptitude for the defense that gives up those three third-and-long conversions after giving up zero yards on those six other plays (three on first down, three on second down)?
When is a team "opportunistic" and "good at cashing in breaks like a good team always does," and when is a team simply "damn freakin' lucky?" Is a team really outplaying an opponent if it totally controls the line of scrimmage, gains tons more yards, dishes out all the hard hits, and goes to the locker room at halftime with an 8-8 tie? That's exactly what South Carolina did at home against Tennessee. As college football journalists, do we credit USC with outplaying the Vols, or do we not?
When does a power football team's modest point total exceed a high-scoring football team's big point total? Case in point, how could a person judge between Auburn's 24-6 win over Georgia and USC's 55-19 win over Oklahoma? For Auburn, an 18-point win over a great defensive team was similarly as substantial as USC's 36-point win over a team that up and quit in the second quarter. Was Auburn's win better than USC's? Probably not. But should there be a legitimate debate about the subject? Absolutely--the games are close enough in terms of quality to merit a debate.
When is a touchdown truly a garbage touchdown, and when is a touchdown a sign of a team's genuine weakness? Case in point, was Virginia Tech's very late touchdown in the 2005 Sugar Bowl against Auburn (with 2:01 left) a sign of the Tigers' defensive weakness and Tech's offensive firepower, or was it a touchdown that, given the 10-point spread at the time, a testament to the fact that the Tigers still had the game very much in hand? In other words, was Auburn's Sugar Bowl victory a very close shave, or was it a solid victory that was closer than the score indicated?
How much weight should be given to special teams when determining football excellence? Case in point, should USC's special teams wins over Cal and BostonCollege's special teams dominance of WestVirginia be viewed as the primary factors in those games, or not?
How much should the point spread be factored into everything that happens in a football game, mindful of the reality that teams simply will not play with the same urgency up by 27 points as they would up 17... or up 17 that they'd have if up by 10... or up 10 that they'd have if up by 7... or up 7 that they'd have if up 3... or up 3 that they'd have if tied? Or, in the interest of being open-minded (that's what this discussion is supposed to be about), should teams be expected to play with the same level of emotion regardless of the circumstance? This would affect the whole trajectory and direction of this discussion.
How much should a fumble or interception be viewed as an offensive blunder, as opposed to defensive excellence? How much should a blocked kick be viewed as a protection blunder, as opposed to blocking/rushing excellence?
What represents a meaningful yard, and what represents an empty yard? In the interest of being open-minded, can there ever be such a thing as an empty yard in the first place? Should teams be statistically ranked, offensively or defensively, based on yards (as currently done) or on points?
How much should rivalry games be viewed as normal football games and standard representations of a given team's quality? What is the threshold (if any) where margin of victory should begin to be a factor in the evaluation of a winning or losing team's level of quality? When should "MOV" cease to be a factor? In other words, should it matter if you lead by 21 points with five minutes left as a result of touchdowns scored to build up the lead, or touchdowns allowed to trim the lead down to that same 21-point total? Or, to phrase it another way, when does a team dominate and slow down late, or when does a team play well but then allow a legitimate comeback to take place before finally stopping the comeback bid? So much semantics here...
On strength of schedule, should the quality of a win or loss be judged according to how that team was perceived and/or ranked at the time of the game, or in light of how that team finished its season? Case in point, should Auburn's 10-9 win over LSU be judged according to the fact that LSU was the much-feared defending national champion with a lofty top-10 ranking at the time of the game, when Auburn was unsure of itself? Or should the game have been viewed as a win over a solid but ultimately limited LSU team that wound up losing three games and narrowly avoided embarrassing home losses to both Troy andOle Miss?
On an even broader level, just what is or should be the most important factor in determining the quality of an unbeaten team worthy of BCS title game consideration, or a one-loss team worthy of BCS bowl consideration? Should it be non-conference schedule? Strength of conference schedule? Strength of conference, period? Strength of overall schedule? Margin of victory?Performance in big games? Overall body of work? Season-long consistency? Development and growth over the course of the season? The team playing the best in December? The team that did the most from September through November? The team most likely to win a bowl game? The team that did the most during the year?
And just what else should determine the strength of a conference schedule? Beyond the rankings and records of teams--and the debate about whether games should be assessed based on the perceptions of teams at the time of the game, versus the end of the season--how much should the loudness of stadiums be factored into account? Should there be an extra weight given to SEC stadiums over Pac-10 stadiums? For Big XII stadiums over Big East stadiums? Or should externals such as those not be factored into the equation?
Given that only the Big Ten currently has instant replay, what should be said--if anything--about SEC, Big XII, Pac-10, ACC and Big East games (plus other key non-BCS conference games) that are decided by clearly bad officiating decisions? Should these games be given an asterisk in the rankings at the end of the season? And if so, what is the point at which one can objectively say a bad call made the difference in a game?
How much should injuries factor into not only an assessment of a given team, but the according schedule strength of any and all of that team's opponents? Case in point, Tennessee scraped by Vanderbilt and Kentucky, but with third-stringer Rick Clausen at quarterback. The Vols were not treated kindly by the media for those close wins, but they were lacking their frontline players at QB and a few other positions. That scenario certainly raises questions about how much attention national college football journalists truly devote to big-picture analysis. We might as well call this the Minnesota-Michigan question: when is a choke a choke, and when is a great comeback by a superior team a great comeback by a superior team? How much should seniority and/or experience factor into a team's performance, and accordingly, into evaluations of its players for awards such as the Heisman? Should Chad Henne and Michael Hart have been looked upon in a particularly favorable or harsh way--not as persons, of course, but strictly within the confines of football analysis--for what they did in total in 2004? Do you harshly grade Michigan on the absolutes, or do you employ some reasoned relativism in assessing the Wolverines? Do you penalize them for their youth, mindful of how the team might stack up against a more experienced club? Or do you reward the Wolverines in the rankings because of what Lloyd Carr and the rest of the coachingstaff did, getting the most out of underclassmen? Is the standard an absolute standard, or an adjusted, situational and relative one?
When is a big goal-line stand a big goal-line stand, and when does an offense shoot itself in the foot and blow a big opportunity? How much emphasis should be given to repeat wins, such as Auburn over Tennessee? Should the first win be emphasized, or the second win devalued, or vice-versa, or something totally different? Should location, time of day, type of surface, and other details such as those--which were all different in both Tiger-Vol games--matter? Should Auburn have been downgraded for not winning as impressively in the SEC title game as it did the first time in Knoxville, or should the Tigers have been commended for being able to sweep an opponent under more pressurized circumstances? (See, it's all in how you frame the reality... there is so little objectivity here, it's ridiculous...)
And finally, in what I think to be the most important question of all, how much should we value emotion in relationship to the trillions of different things that happen to each of the 117 Division I-A football teams in each of their games and each of their seasons as a whole, from training camp to the very final gun? When ought we (or ought we not?) look at a given event and chalk it up to emotion, and when should we look at an event and chalk it up to excellence? Case in point, do we not elevate USC too much, given that Oklahoma folded the tent emotionally after Mark Bradley's fumbled punt in the Orange Bowl? Or do we push emotion aside and look at how USC maximized that play to the fullest possible degree?
To put it differently, do you make one emotion-changing play the cornerstone of your analysis as a college football journalist, or do you precisely look at everything but that one play in forming the core of your analysis as a college football journalist?
Folks, is that a long list of questions or what? And what's amazing is that other writers (and other fans) could surely come up with hundreds of other questions that flow from all of the above queries, plus some entirely new questions that stake out even more analytical territory. Simply realize, then, that there are no universally agreed upon and widely-established industry standards within the community of college football journalism for objectively, formulaically, and quantifiably addressing these questions. I cannot begin to emphasize this point enough (and I say that honestly, even though I've tried to beat that point into the ground, anyway!). Until we begin to truly address and talk about all of the above questions--and countless unasked questions as well--the subjective nature of college football journalism will continue to exist.
I don't know about my colleagues, but I--for one--asked many of these questions during the 2004 season, in the attempt to put college football analysis in the open and expose some of its profound limitations. I didn't create these limits, nor did I ever want them, but they're simply there--like a bad cold, they won't go away. It's useless to think you can make totally objective, airtight and 100-percent evidence-proof analyses of college football games, so there's no use pretending that there are magical standards every college football journalist should be using to neatly arrive at the same conclusion. No such standards exist. To the college football fans of America, I have one simple thing to say as we switch from the 2004 season to 2005: please allow us, the national college football journalists of America (specifically at CFN, which we know you'll read more and more, right?), to simply be wrong.
Allow us to make bad predictions and misjudge the meaning, relevance or impact of early-season September games. Allow us to think certain things about games and teams that, as the season progresses, become noticeably untrue. All of these things happen regularly and annually to all the human beings who follow this sport, and especially those who follow it for a living (or something less than a living, in my case). Being wrong comes with the territory, and disagreement is part of fan-journalist interactions. But for the love of God, college football fans, will you please stop thinking that there's a media conspiracy in this sport, and that we are just as lazy, sloppy and biased as political journalists in Washington, D.C. and other places of dizzying influence and corporate power? We don't call the shots in college football: the conference commissioners and college presidents do. No one on College Gameday is anything remotely close to the kingmaker and agenda-setter that Grantland Rice used to be a long time ago. And with respect to individual teams, we simply can't cover you all the time the way your hometown paper does. We're national journalists for a reason: we look at the whole storyline, and oftentimes, that means we either have to focus on your team's opponent in a big game, or we have to focus on an entirely separate game that doesn't even involve your team.
Please assume that what we're doing here is objective; feel free to call it wrong, but allow us the ability to make decisions and conduct discussions without having our very identity and integrity assailed from the get go, in a manner that shoots bullets first and asks questions much later, if at all. In 2005 and every future year I hope to spend as a college football journalist (which is not a guarantee; mental health is something I want to maintain, you know...), I'd love to simply be wrong... not biased, sloppy or lazy; not agenda-driven (except for seeing the BCS end, given that it would help the sport I cover), corporate-minded or greedy; not Eastern, Southern or Midwestern (remember, I live on the West Coast); but just--ahhhh!--wrong. Every football journalist makes a wrong prediction or a wrong statement, oh, at least several dozen times each season. When we college football journalists--or any journalists, for that matter--write a column or a piece of news analysis, we're writing based on what we've seen up to that point in time. We're using all the evidence we've been able to objectively gather and process up to that moment. This means that we cannot see into the future and know exactly what will happen. We can only predict. Therefore, when a prediction turns out to be wrong, does that mean we were poor college football journalists when we made that prediction? Should the measure of a college football journalist be how well he does (or would do) at a Vegas sports book?
I would hope you, the college football fans of America, would get the picture. Allow us journalists to have the pleasure and relief of being wrong--then we can spend our time writing about the new mountain of evidence that showed us why we were wrong. Now, if you'll please remove the proverbial gun from my head, I just might be able to breathe... and write, and dialogue, and analyze college football... a little bit better in 2005 and beyond.