Before I get into the actual picks, predictions and analyses for the upcoming 2009 football season, I thought it would be a good idea to address some of the outstanding issues and questions from last year. Of these, one of the most discussed is the fate of the Utah Utes. Did they deserve a title game shot? In other words, did they get screwed?
Below is a point/counterpoint on that issue; one focuses on the narrow question of whether Utah was in fact good enough to belong in the title game, and the other focuses on the broader question of whether it even mattered.
Point: Utah simply wasn't good enough
Good teams win close games, and great teams win blowouts. It's a simple statement, in many cases overly simplistic, but it goes to the heart of why Utah simply wasn't as good as Florida and Oklahoma, the participants in the national title game. If you look at the week-in, week-out accomplishments of these three teams over the course of the regular season, it's clear that Utah was the lesser of the three.
Start with the easiest case, Florida. The Gators were one of the great dominant teams of the decade, even before they won the title game against Oklahoma. Yes, they lost to Ole Miss (by a point), but they dominated everything else, winning every single other game by at least 11 points. Even more exceptionally, if you also take out the SEC Championship game win against Alabama they crushed every single opponent by at least 23! And this wasn't a cakewalk through a weak schedule like some dominant teams in the past achieved, this was a crushing of the SEC, plus two legitimately good teams in Miami and Florida St. Yes, the SEC wasn't as good as usual, but it was still very good, and adding two good non-conference foes plus the SEC title game made their run amazing by virtually any standard. This was easily one of the top ten teams of the decade even before they won the national title game, and afterwards they're probably one of the top five. This wasn't a weak team that fell into the national title, this was a dominant team that kicked ass against tough competition, week in and week out.
Next up is Oklahoma. Their case wasn't quite as strong as Florida's, but it was still very strong. The Big 12 was generally regarded as the strongest league in the country (at least before they struggled in the bowls), which means that it's normal for its champion to generally get the benefit of the doubt, all other things being equal. But not everything was equal. Yes, they also lost a game (to a top five Texas team), but much like Florida they dominated their way through a very tough schedule. Like Florida, every single one of their wins was double-digits, and only one (Kansas by 14) was by less than 20. In addition to dominating every Big 12 game (including arguably the greatest single game performance of the year, where they annihilated a very good Texas Tech team 65-21), and thrashing Mizzou by 41 in the championship game, they also slapped around Big East champion Cincinnati by 26 and Mountain West member TCU by 25. In terms of week in, week out dominance they weren't quite in Florida's league, but they were close.
Last up is Utah. Yes, they ran the table, but that's about the only argument you can make. They were much less dominant against a much easier slate; unless you believe that not losing is quite literally the only thing that matters it's clear they simply weren't as good. It's true that they didn't lose a game, but there were serious blemishes on their resume nonetheless. For starters, there were a number of games where they struggled heavily, not just against good teams, but also against mediocre to bad teams. Against an awful 3-9 Michigan team, they almost gave the game away, and as it was barely escaped with a two point win. Against a bad New Mexico team, they barely escaped with a three point win. And against a mediocre Air Force team, they only won by a single touchdown. Add those three games up, and they're together much more troubling than either Florida's or Oklahoma's single loss against very good opponents. And those are merely the blemishes. The other problem with their resume is that they simply didn't have many impressive games. In fact, the 24-point win over BYU to end the regular season was the only really impressive game they had during the whole regular season; three-point wins over Oregon St and TCU were nice, but when you're hanging your hat on three-point home wins over non-top ten teams, you have a serious resume problem.
Moreover, Utah had another problem with their resume; their road record was very unimpressive. Yes, they won all six games, and three were blowouts, but all three blowouts were against awful opponents in Utah St, Wyoming, and San Diego St. The other three were the aforementioned disturbingly close games against mediocre to really bad opponents Michigan, Air Force and New Mexico. Great teams impress on the road; Florida thrashed a good Florida St team on their own turf, thrashed a good Georgia team on a neutral site, and dominated okay opponents in Arkansas and Vanderbilt; Oklahoma dominated Mizzou on a neutral site, won at Oklahoma St by 20, and crushed all of the mediocre to bad teams they played on the road; Utah played no one particularly good and half the time barely won.
In the congressional hearings, a representative from Nebraska said that the only thing Utah could have done better was to play Nebraska's schedule. That's false; what they could have done better was simply to play better football. It's not the BCS's fault that they played poorly against multiple mediocre to bad opponents; it's not the BCS's fault that they barely beat the only two really good teams they played, both at home; it's not the BCS's fault that they chose to schedule both Utah St and Weber St instead of adding one or two decent teams to make their schedule more respectable; and it's not the BCS's fault that Utah simply wasn't as good as Florida and Oklahoma.
Counter-Point: Utah had no chance no matter how good they were
Yes, it's true that Utah wasn't as good as Florida and Oklahoma, but that's not the point. The point is that it didn't matter whether or not they were as good; even if they were better they wouldn't have gotten access to the national title game.
Of course, it's impossible to say for certain that Utah wouldn't have gotten in if they'd actually had a good case for being one of the two best teams in the country, but it seems pretty likely it would have gone that way. To show my point, let's ignore what Utah actually achieved and re-do the season with a much stronger resume. Would "Super-Utah" have gotten a title game shot?
The first thing to change is that ugly Weber St game, which was an obvious blemish. Utah played Louisville in 2007 and will again in 2009, but let's say that they actually played them in 2008, and in order to be somewhat realistic let's say that they did only a bit better than what really happened, so let's say they win at Louisville 45-30 instead of a mediocre performance against a AA team.
Next, let's edit that ugly Michigan game. Instead of doing their best to blow it, let's say that Super-Utah plays decently and wins by ten. While we're at it, let's pretend Michigan doesn't humiliate themselves against Toledo and is a still-bad 4-8, but at least less bad than they actually were.
Next is Oregon St. Once again, three points at home isn't really what you'd want to see from a legit national title contender, so let's say it's a seven point win. And let's say that instead of the suck-fest they pulled at Happy Valley, they only lose by 17. Still embarrassing, but much less bad than a 31 point beating.
Next up, Air Force. Great teams don't struggle at Air Force, so let's say Super-Utah wins by 14, still not a great performance, but no longer a red flag. And while we're at it, let's say Air Force actually beat Navy (reasonable given how close the game was), making them a 9-3 team, which is better than the 8-4 they actually were.
And finally, New Mexico. That three-point win was simply embarrassing, no two ways about it. So let's say they beat them like TCU did, say 24-3. Again, New Mexico isn't good enough for that to stick out, but once again it's no longer a red flag.
And that's it. No massive, wholesale changes. No changing all wins to 99 points. Just a number of generally small changes to what actually happened, each of which would have boosted Utah's resume, and combined would have made Super-Utah look a whole lot better than actual Utah.
Of course, Super-Utah still has some issues. They didn't beat any really good opponents on the road, but they no longer have any big red flags either, Air Force becomes good enough to be an impressive win, and seven road games is still a nice resume boost, even if none of the opponents were elite. Oregon St still has an ugly loss at Penn St, still has the ass-kicking Oregon gave them, and still had the screwup at Stanford, but they look a bit better, and they're good enough that a seven-point win is a nice feather in the cap. Oklahoma can still say "we beat TCU much worse than you guys", and point to a number of other great performances, but now there's a truly legitimate debate. Super-Utah now has enough heft in the resume that their backers can make a reasonable case that they really were one of the two best in the country instead of just "we didn't lose, and we don't care about anything else".
However, is there anyone out there who thinks that Super-Utah makes it to the title game, or even comes particularly close? Yes, the resume is much better, and yes they have a case, but remember, actual Utah finished sixth in the BCS rankings, way behind the top three of Oklahoma, Florida and Texas. The computers will like Super-Utah better, but would it be enough to put them even into the top three, much less the top two? Maybe, but I'm skeptical, since we're only changed three win/loss results (@ Louisville win instead of vs Weber, Michigan beats Toledo, and Air Force beats Navy), and there was a huge gap between them and the top three; that should be enough to move them up a spot or two in some of the rankings, but my guess is that they merely end up fourth instead of fifth.
And as far as the humans go, probably a few vote them higher than what actually happened, but again, actual Utah was seventh in both polls. With just a handful of resume alterations, there's pretty much zero chance the voters in aggregate move them much higher. They might leapfrog Penn St (though I'm not even certain that happens), but that's pretty much it. A .10 gap between them and USC (5th and T-4th in the two human polls) isn't going to be closed by the changes we've made. Remember, the humans voted actual Utah BEHIND a one-loss Penn St team that didn't beat anyone really good, and whose best win (Ohio St) was very close, and WAY behind an Alabama team that squeaked by Kentucky, really squeaked by LSU, squeaked by Ole Miss and lacked the sort of awesome performances that might justify brushing aside a double-digit loss, much less in the last week of the year. To be honest, I bet the humans don't' even move Super-Utah ahead of Alabama, much less ahead of any of the top three.
And that's really the problem. No matter how good a non-BCS team may be, the voters have consistently chosen to under-rate their performances and give "helmet" teams the benefit of the doubt. No amount of lobbying, and no amount of legal challenges is likely to change this simple fact. The real question is, what can Utah and the rest of the non-BCS teams do about it. Clearly the Orrin Hatch speeches aren't doing much, and clearly the lawsuit threats aren't either. There are no easy answers, but there are a number of things that they can be doing, many of which they either haven't thought of or have chosen not to try. That list will be coming along in part two of the 2008 lookback.
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