Moving Parts: The Second Half Of The Season
Entrenched thought processes. Entrenched sets of rankings. Entrenched views. Entrenched allegiances to conferences and teams. These are all the enemies of critical thinking over the course of a college football season. Making sense of the second half of the season is one of the most important tasks any college football observer can perform. "Moving Parts" tackles this endeavor head-on.
By Matt Zemek
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MOVING PARTS: THE JOURNEY THROUGH THE SECOND HALF OF A COLLEGE FOOTBALL SEASON
Welcome to a new feature at CFN. "Moving Parts" perfectly refers to the second half of a college football season. Resumes that were thin, incomplete or misleading in the first half of a season begin to take on their true identities in the second half. Longtime CFN readers will know that the Weekly Affirmation has steadfastly believed in not having any rankings whatsoever – for the national title race, the Heisman, and for anything else that is able to be ranked – until the month of November. Yet, a large part of the college football world is (and has been) conditioned to value September and October rankings. The problem that often arises from a season-long emphasis on rankings is that the timing of a team's loss is held against it or (alternatively) used to help it in late November. Similarly, if Team A starts a season with a high ranking and keeps winning, other more impressive teams (Team B, Team C) find it hard to leap Team A even if they produce better resumes.
College football is a messy sport, and as long as there's a four-team playoff with a selection committee (as opposed to an eight-team playoff comprised of major conference champions, the Group of Five champion, and the two best at-large teams), arguments will inevitably define our November weeks and our early-December weekends. Arguments are part of this sport, like it or not.
What is the purpose of "Moving Parts"? Simple – to make arguments clearer and more defined. No, this is not an attempt to end arguments with definitive answers. "Moving Parts" aims, more than anything else, to ensure that each week's set of developments is viewed critically and with fresh eyes. Whether you agree or disagree with the notion that rankings shouldn't exist until November, it should be a universal point of agreement in the college football community that rankings should not have to be static from week to week. Team A doesn't have to be in the top two or top four in the middle of November. As long as it's in the top two or four on the first or second Sunday morning of December, it has reached its goal. If intellectual independence and genuine honesty were to govern the weekly rankings processes, we would see substantial shifts each week, but that just doesn't happen. There's an entrenched notion in the minds of voters that if Team A wins this week and holds X ranking, a win next week should preserve that ranking. Such a line of thought turns a college football season into a set of fixed principles instead of what it should be: an exercise in seeing the landscape afresh each week, moving teams up or down as necessary.
"Moving Parts" places an emphasis on the word moving, because everything about this new feature is intended to militate against the entrenched nature of thought as it pertains to the rankings process and perceptions of what a record or schedule reflects over the course of a college football season. For the next several Wednesdays through Dec. 4, keep your eyes on the "Moving Parts" in the second half of a season. Be willing to see things anew.
ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE
"Moving Parts" will be divided into subsections on the various conferences as they relate to the national picture. We'll provide notes about a team's record and resume, discussing how the week's upcoming games and past results can both reshape the way that team is seen.
Florida State-Clemson is obviously the featured game of the ACC and, moreover, week eight. Winning this game is its own reward for all the obvious reasons. How should the Seminoles and Tigers be perceived as the season goes along? Both teams face other tests – especially against in-state rivals from the SEC – that should enable FSU and Clemson to more sharply define their identities, for better or worse.
In many ways, a highly crucial part of the ACC stretch run will be the extent to which Miami and Virginia Tech respond to pressure. If the Hurricanes and Hokies both win 10 games and look good in the process, the resumes of FSU and/or Clemson will grow in quality. This fleshes out a basic component of "Moving Parts": One can't always say that the champion of Conference X will easily and clearly deserve to get a BCS title game shot over the champion of Conference Y. This is particularly apparent in a potential debate between the ACC champion and the Pac-12 champion if both teams were to go 13-0. How Virginia Tech and Miami perform will have something to do with the way you – and I – evaluate Florida State and Clemson.
BIG 12 CONFERENCE
The utter chaos which pervades the Big 12 race – creating a confused and cluttered dynamic – makes it hard to point to specific tension points in the race because… well… the whole league is a tension point. The unbeaten teams in the league (Baylor and Texas Tech) have not yet proven themselves. Power schools such as Texas and Oklahoma have been bloodied to a considerable extent. Schools felt to be leading contenders for the league title before the season began – TCU and especially Oklahoma State – have stumbled badly. The league's identity will gain more definition next week, in which we'll explore some possibilities in greater detail.
BIG TEN CONFERENCE
When Wisconsin whacked Northwestern, the Badgers planted their flag and made it hard to contest the notion that they're the second-best team in the conference. All eyes are on Ohio State right now, and while the Buckeyes had to like the fact that Wisconsin looks as good as it does, the Buckeyes also had to lament the way in which Northwestern folded. An assessment of OSU depends in part (not entirely, but in part) on the strength of Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan this season. The Big Ten certainly looks like a thin league for yet another season, but perhaps the next six weeks will be filled with surprises and plot twists.
Stanford's loss to Utah was unquestionably bad news for the Pac-12, especially league favorite Oregon. Oregon needs to beat Stanford on Nov. 7 in order to remain close to the driver's seat for the BCS National Championship Game, so it was in the Ducks' best interest for Stanford to be unbeaten heading into that game. Oregon also plays UCLA on Oct. 26 and has already drubbed Washington. The Ducks need Stanford, UCLA and Washington to be really good. With that in mind, there are two games this weekend the Ducks will certainly pay attention to: UCLA-Stanford and Washington-Arizona State. The outcomes of these kinds of measuring-stick showdowns certainly matter. What also matters (or at least, SHOULD matter) for any discriminating college football observer is the quality of these games. If the Pac-12 puts on a show and these teams from the upper tier of the conference make the best possible impression, Oregon – should it go 13-0 – would rightly deserve to be upgraded. Perhaps the Florida State-Clemson winner would deserve to be upgraded based on its own conquests and achievements. If two teams upgrade themselves at the same time, so be it. The task of the observer is to weigh them as fairly and fully as possible.
Want to evaluate Alabama in the national title picture? Watch Auburn-Texas A&M this weekend. Two Alabama opponents will magnify, in one way or another, the quality of the Crimson Tide's portfolio. The same holds true for LSU's game at Ole Miss. The SEC East is a cloudy world at the moment, but if one team heals up (or straightens up, or both) and looks like an Atlanta-bound juggernaut in late November, the SEC West champion's resume would be bolstered to an even greater degree. We'll see how the SEC's foremost challengers change the composition of Alabama's resume in the coming weeks.
THE OTHER FBS CONFERENCES
How seriously should The American be viewed as a conference? UCF-Louisville this Friday night will have a lot to say on the matter. The Mountain West is immersed in a quiet period right now before bigger battles on Oct. 26 and beyond. The same holds true for the MAC, given that Northern Illinois's most challenging contests lie in November. The Sun Belt and Conference USA possess no national players, so the only remaining point of intrigue in the upper reaches of the FBS concerns Notre Dame's ability to perhaps sneak into a BCS bowl. The Irish will probably have to run the table; if they go 9-3, the composition of their resume would be worth examining in greater detail.
That's a brief run-through for the first edition of "Moving Parts." Next week, we'll deepen the focus on various teams and conferences as they provide more information for the mind (and eye) to process.