Zemek Thought: Seasons Don't Provide Clarity

Staff Columnist
Posted Nov 19, 2012

Zemek Thought: College football seasons don't provide enough clarity.

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

Every college football analyst, pundit, blogger, commentator, and fan – anyone who claims to love the sport and have its best interests in mind – owes it to himself or herself to do one thing today and, for that matter, for the next two weeks: Study the full resumes of the one-loss teams that have been thrown into the national title game mix now that Kansas State and Oregon have both been knocked off.

Yes, you likely have your own strongly-held opinion about the matter. There's nothing wrong with that… as long as you don't allow your narrative to get in the way of your inclinations. I have to do the same thing myself.

Saturday night, I was convinced that Alabama had a better resume than Oregon. I slept on it. Sunday morning, I looked at the two resumes again.

I still think Alabama's resume is better.

I'm less convinced that I'm right.

Please, college football fans – this is not meant to say that the Pac-12 is underrated or (especially) that the SEC is overrated. Don't go down that road, because that's not the point, be it conscious or subconscious.

The point of saying that there's a wafer-thin difference between Alabama's and Oregon's (and, for that matter, Kansas State's) resume is to show that, once again, a college football season will deprive us of a clear resolution to the national title drama. If Gene Smith at Ohio State had not played in the 2012 Gator Bowl, we might be staring at a clean and clear resolution, with unbeaten Notre Dame preparing to play unbeaten Ohio State, but even then, the quality of the Big Ten plus Ohio State's light non-conference schedule would certainly raise questions about the difficulty of Ohio State's 12-game slate this season.

At this time of the year – in almost every season – the most inconvenient truth about the on-field product of college football emerges in all its frustrating inadequacy: If there aren't two – AND ONLY TWO - unbeaten teams left at the end of the regular season, the national championship is determined in an unclear and ultimately insufficient manner.

Let's be precise here: You might claim that the best team usually does win – and has won – the national championship. That's a reasonable point, one worth acknowledging. Yet, the point of emphasis in this discussion is that college football's national titles – even today – do not get resolved with the clarity and cleanness of a sport that has really not advanced far beyond 1978 (USC-Alabama), 1990 (Georgia Tech-Colorado), or 1997 (Michigan-Nebraska).

The following statement gets dragged out of the closet in late November of every year, but it's no less relevant or important each time it's used: There have been only three clear-cut resolutions to national championship competitions in the 14-season BCS era: 1999 (Florida State over Virginia Tech); 2002 (Ohio State over Miami); and 2005 (Texas over USC). Those three seasons offered the one magic scenario (two and only two unbeatens at the end of the regular season) in which a one-shot national title game concluded a season without any controversy whatsoever. The other 11 seasons, however, were cloudy, cluttered and clamorous on the morning after a so-called "national title game" concluded. This is not to say that those 11 champions weren't deserving; they earned what they got.

The problem with those 11 seasons is that they either failed to fully test the eventual champion or failed to give another challenger the chance it deserved on the big stage. Phrased differently, college football seasons decide national championships with so many games remaining unplayed. College football seasons normally arrive at national champions despite the reality that so many questions go unanswered.

This brings us back to the beginning of the discussion. Look at Alabama's and Oregon's resumes. You will have an opinion on them. By all means, sell that opinion and defend it. However, can you claim with a straight face that there's a yawning chasm between them? (The same question applies for Kansas State's resume in comparison with the Tide's and the Ducks' portfolios.)

The non-conference portions of the slate are relatively equal: Alabama has the better high-profile opponent (Michigan compared to Fresno State), but Oregon picked a better cupcake (Tennessee Tech versus Western Carolina) and a better Sun Belt team (Arkansas State versus Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic).

Within the Pac-12 and the SEC, the gap between Bama and Oregon remains small. Alabama clearly has the highest-value scalp, winning at LSU at night. Oregon's best win is currently USC; it would become Oregon State with a win this Saturday, but through 11 games, it's USC. That's a big edge for Alabama. Yet, in the rest of the two leagues, Oregon gains an advantage because the Pac-12 has better mid-level teams than the SEC. Alabama beat Mississippi State. Oregon defeated seven-win Arizona, seven-win Washington, and six-win Arizona State. Yes, it's definitely true that the number of wins should not automatically elevate a team's level of quality to an unmerited degree. Yet, the SEC has too many teams that have fallen on their faces this season. A five-win Ole Miss team might very well beat Washington on a neutral field, but just how much slack can the Rebels receive in a resume comparison when they: A) blew a 17-point lead at home to Vanderbilt; and B) benefited this season from Auburn's and Arkansas' struggles?

Alabama beat a lot of noticeably mediocre teams this season, teams that don't offer much of any resume value: Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and Auburn will not make a bowl this season. No one expected those four teams to go bowl-less as a group this year, but that's what has happened. The 14-team SEC has only six teams who carried their weight this season. The bottom eight have been abysmal, so let's not inflate Alabama's resume by any means.

You might be wondering, then: "Why is Alabama's resume better than Oregon's?" The simple answer can be given in four words: "Colorado. Washington State. California."

Yet, in reviewing Alabama's and Oregon's overall bodies of work, the gap is not pronounced. Let's not kid ourselves: Alabama earns a slight edge in terms of non-conference schedule strength (you could make the case for Oregon, but I think the act of scheduling a neutral-field opener against Michigan should carry weighted value). Oregon has better wins in the mid-level section of its conference. Alabama's bottom-feeding opponents in the SEC are slightly better than Oregon's bottom-feeders in the Pac-12. The two teams' respective losses – at home to Texas A&M and Stanford – are relatively even. Ultimately, Alabama's win at LSU is something of a trump card or tiebreaker, but if one game differentiates two portfolios in an exhaustive examination, that's not a wide gap. The notion that the 2012 college football season will have separated Alabama from Oregon with considerable clarity is laughable.

Alabama and Oregon will not have played on the field. Texas A&M and Stanford – two teams who could do much to shift the weight of argument in favor of either the Tide or the Ducks – will not have played on the field.

Kansas State won't get to play Georgia. Florida won't get to play Oregon State. South Carolina won't get to play Stanford. UCLA won't get to play LSU. These and DOZENS of other matchups that would tell us so much about the quality of various upper-tier teams will not be played. Yet, college football will claim to have crowned a clear-cut national champion.

Let's not pretend that the 2012 national champion of college football will emerge without dispute. The "two and only two unbeaten teams" scenario, the magic bullet, will not come to pass… again. We're left with resume comparisons that can certainly be argued in one direction or another… but which beg the question once more: Why can't college football resolve these debates with more and better regular-season contests involving the best teams? Until that question gets addressed by the leaders and power brokers in this sport, we'll continue to absorb the stomach punch of an unsatisfactory end to a season on a Monday night in early January.