SATURDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2023
Then, reality bit: On this very special weekend, let's talk college football. Also, let's discuss the kinds of ways we humans tend to reason.
Who are the four best teams this year? Truthfully, only The Shadow knows—and as far as we know, he isn't a member of the Playoff Selection Committee.
We refer to the 13-member panel charged with selecting the four (4) teams who will take part in the post-season tournament which produces a national champion.
Tomorrow, the committee will name the four best teams—or at least, they'll try or pretend to do so.
In truth, there is no objective way to select the four best teams. Especially in a year like this, it's very, very, very hard to know who the four best are.
Teams from the five major "power conferences" play very few games against each other in the course of the regular season. This makes it hard to know how the best teams from one power conference might compare to those from the other conferences in some particular year.
By the way, here are the won-loss records for three of those conferences this year. (We're counting Notre Dame as a "Power 5" team.) Can you spot the dominance by the SEC which every sports pundit affirms?
Won-loss record against teams from other Power 5 conferences:
SEC teams: 7-9
Big Ten teams: 6-8
Pac-12 teams: 7-5
The SEC got stuck with some fairly tough matchups this year. But are you able to spot that circuit's incontrovertible dominance?
Who are the four best teams this year? There's no obvious way to tell.
In the absence of head-to-head matchups, we're forced to fall back on "expert opinion" and on "the eyeball test." That said, just how solid is expert opinion? How well do expert eyeballs perform when applying that famous test?
Expert opinion is fallible! Consider this:
Back in the day, only two teams were selected to play for the national title. Let's recall the state of expert opinion back in 2006.
All the experts agreed that year. Ohio State was rated #1. Ohio State was best.
Also, Michigan was rated #2. The Wolverines were second best.
As you can see at this link, those Big Ten rivals were ranked #1 and #2 in the AP poll from Week 7 (October 15) right on through Week 12 (November 19).
In Week 11, the two teams finally met on the field. They entered the game with identical 11-0 records. They played an exciting game, with Ohio State winning, 42-39.
Now for the rest of the story:
Even after that (exciting) game had been played, the two teams remained #1 and #2 in the next AP poll! Major sports pundits enthusiastically said the two teams were still the best. (We're looking at you, old pal Tony and Michael!)
Pundits said the Big Ten rivals should be selected to play a rematch for the national championship. Their first game had been so great that it should be Ohio State versus Michigan all over again!
By the time all the regular season games were done, Michigan had fallen to #3 in the AP poll. Ohio State was still #1, receiving all 65 first-place votes.
As it turned out, that year's committee decided to send #1 Ohio State off to play #2 Florida in the national championship game. #3 Michigan got shunted off to the Rose Bowl, where they'd get to pummel #8 Southern Cal.
Ohio State was still #1. Applying the eyeball test, every AP voter said so—but here's what happened next:
In the game for the national title, Ohio State got blasted by Florida, 41-14.
Out in the Rose Bowl, it was the same darn thing. Southern Cal was ahead, 32-11, with one minute left in the game. A closing touchdown left Michigan on the short end of a 32-18 final score.
From Week 7 right through Week 12, experts employing the eyeball test were sure about what they saw. Ohio State and Michigan were the two best teams that year. Even after they met on the field, pundits said they should play again for the national title.
In fairness, Ohio State and Michigan were both very good that year. That said, it was fairly obvious that the eyeball test, performed by experts, had misjudged how good they were.
The following year, expert opinion was still quite high on Michigan. As you can see at this link, they started the season ranked #5 in the AP's preseason poll.
In a very famous upset, they lost their opening game—at home!—to Appalachian State. The next week, Oregon came into the Big House and blew their doors off all over again, 39-7.
(By Week 11, Oregon had risen to #2 in the AP poll. Magnificent Dennis Dixon may have been on his way to the Heisman Trophy. An injury that week ended his season. The Ducks ended up #23 in the final AP poll. Michigan ended up #18.)
Who are the four best teams this year? At that point, it's hard to tell. Experts were sure in 2006. As it turned out, the experts were almost surely wrong.
This past week, sports pundits argued about the four best teams until they were Michigan blue in the face. None of them seemed to understand a basic point:
There's no objective way to say who the best teams are. There's no way to "prove" your point.
They argued and argued and argued some more, citing such topics as "strength of schedule." None of them seemed to realize that strength of schedule, in the end, is another subjective measure.
Each year, we're fascinated by this special week. We get to see one of the ways we humans reason—and according to major anthropologists, we don't always reason real good.
For the record, this doesn't mean that the pundits are "bad people." It means that they're cable sports stars!
A subjective assessment: In our view, this would have been the perfect year for an eight-team playoff. (Next year, we go to a twelve-team playoff.)
At this link, you can see the top eight teams in the current AP poll. Our best guess?
Before the injury to Florida State's star quarterback, any one of those teams could conceivably have won an eight-team playoff. In our view, the odds would have dropped sharply from there.
Is Georgia still the nation's best team? They certainly may be! Today, we start to get the chance to maybe perhaps find out.