Title Talk
January 7, 2008

Every time I think that I have been too harsh in my criticism of sportswriters, they find a way to justify lowering my opinion even further.  

Tom Dienhart of the Sporting News is one of many who thinks that USC should get consideration to be voted as the #1 team when the season ends tonight, despite the fact that they aren't playing in the national championship game.  He and his collegues also feel that no team "has dominated it's sport over the last 5 or 6 years the way USC has".   Their argument?  "USC has produced three Heisman winners, seven first-round draft picks and two national titles. And in all honesty, USC could have won the national title the last two years, save for stunning losses to UCLA (2006) and Stanford (2007). And remember how close the Trojans came to winning it all in 2005 [season], when they got edged in a thrilling BCS championship game by Texas?"

Just to be clear, this came after USC dodged a date with #4 Georgia in order to play #13 Illinois in the Rose Bowl.  The purpose of the BCS was to create the best match-ups in the bowl games by allowing teams to opt out of their traditional conference rivalries in order to play better teams.  USC chose not to face an SEC team in their game in order to play a lower ranked team from an inferior conference.  It's not my opinion that the Big-10 is an inferior conference; it is a fact born out by the won-loss records in bowl games.  The Big Ten has had a losing record in bowl games the last three years whereas the SEC has had one of the best records in the big games.  This year was no exception with the Big Ten at 3-4 and the SEC at 6-2 before tonight's national title game.  It is, however, my opinion that any team that chooses not to face the best competition can not be considered the best.

Then there's the argument about first round picks and national titles.  To be factual, USC did not win two national titles: they won one in 2005 and were voted #1 by the sportswriters the year before.  Ever since 1998 the national champion is determined by the BCS championship game and only by that game, not by the sportswriters.  I'm not convinced they have earned the right to determine who is the best team given their woeful history of picking who is best.  In the team rankings and in the Heisman voting they have a knack for ignoring the evidence.  The most obvious example is the 1984 Brigham Young "championship" team that went undefeated despite not playing a single ranked opponent, even in their bowl game.  It was because of that vote that the BCS was created.  The writers' record in the Heisman voting has been equally abysmal, failing to recognize the best player in college football almost two thirds of the time.  Since 1989, Gino Torretta, Andre Ware, Troy Smith, Jason White, Eric Crouch, Chris Weinke, Ron Dayne, Danny Wuerffel, Rasham Salaam, Ty Detmer and Charlie Ward have taken home the trophy yet I doubt any evoke memories of awe or greatness.  Weinke was 27 years old for crying out loud when he won.  Most of those guys came from very good programs and/or faced grossly subpar competition.  Looking at some of the runners-up over that same timepsan - Marshall Faulk, Peyton Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, Adrian Peterson, Vince Young - they either came from non-traditional powers or were pretty much the only NFL worthy player on their respective squads making it much easier for opposing coaches to identify the players on which to focus their attention.  Given that they seem to be completely clueless about context, sportswriters couldn't find their own butt with both hands much less the best player in college football.  I think history will bear out that Darren McFadden should have won at least once over the last two years and probably both years.  And given how meager an impact Matt Leinart has had, and to some extent, Reggie Bush, it's looking like that Heisman bump is nothing more than media hot air.

But back to USC's "greatness", there are at least two other school that have had as many first round picks over that time span.  Oklahoma came close with 6, but both of tonight's championship game participants have had as many.  LSU has had 7 with most of them developing into solid NFL regulars.  Joseph Addai, Dwayne Bowe and LaRon Landry were the latest coming into their own this year, but Michael Clayton has been a solid contributor, too.  Ohio State has had 10 first round picks with three NFL standouts - Anthony Gonzales, Santonio Holmes and AJ Hawk.  With a win tonight, Ohio State or LSU will be the first team to boast two BCS championships - both coming since 2002 - giving each comparable qualifications to be considered the best program of this decade regardless of the game's outcome.  USC has finished in the top ten every year since 2003 but except for 2005, LSU has too, and in three of those years they finished higher in the standings.  Ohio State, the same but only twice higher than USC.

And how could anyone consider USC a better team that West Virginia this year, regardless of what happens tonight?  West Virginia has played more ranked teams and they dismantled an Oklahoma team in the Fiesta Bowl that many considered one of the two or three best this season.  Meanwhile, USC beat up on an Illinois team that had one quality win.  The Pac-10 didn't impress in the bowls with Arizona State getting hammered by Texas and Cal squeaking by an Air Force team that lost it's quarterback in the third quarter.  Only Oregon and USC won impressively and only Oregon played what was thought to be an equally matched opponent.  Adding those "stunning losses" to lousy UCLA and Stanford teams to the USC equation, it's abundantly clear that while USC has been one of the better programs, there is no way one could rationally conclude that they are the best.  

Speaking of the best, who will win tonight's game?  There's been a lot of talk about how each side matches up but what has been left out of the talk is how healthy the Tigers are coming into this game.  Other than their first three games, LSU has not had all of it's best players on the field healthy in any game but tonight they will.  So the LSU team Ohio State will face is much closer to the team that obliterated #3 Virginia Tech than the team that "eaked out" wins down the stretch.

Statistically, there's not much difference between LSU and Ohio State on defense except that LSU is much better at creating turnovers, particularly interceptions, and LSU has played much better competition, having faced more ranked teams and three legitimate Heisman candidates whereas Ohio State has faced none.  If LSU gets pressure on Buckeye QB Todd Boeckman with just their front four, a very real possibility with Glenn Dorsey 100% and Ricky Jean-Francois back on the field, Ohio State really doesn't have much of a chance because LSU will be able to pack the box to stop their power running game.  That will force Boeckman to generate their offense, a tall order considering he's averaged less than 200 yards passing plus an interception per game.  

When LSU is on offense, they have two mobile QBs (something that Ohio State has had great difficulty defending) and exceptional speed at three wide reciever positions and two running backs (Keiland Williams and Trindon Holiday).  The Buckeyes haven't faced anyone with Holiday's speed: he's literally the fastest man in football and the second fastest man in all of college sports, track included.  LSU has a solid offensive line opening up running lanes for an average of almost 220 yards per game.  Auburn and Alabama are the only two teams to hold the Tigers under 200 yards rushing and in the Alabama game LSU passed for nearly 400 yards so they weren't exactly depending on their running game.  Ohio State has a very good defense but I just don't see how they match up against the quality and quantity of LSU's weapons, especially now that they are all healthy.  If Tiger QB Matt Flynn does his job and distributes the ball to the playmakers and not try to do too much himself, LSU will likely match their points output in their last two bowl appearances.  

Motivation was my only concern with LSU, as they have had a habit of playing to their competitoin rather than playing to their potential.  But I think that was taken care of by the media.  Perhaps much of the talk about Ohio State being the better team was to allay viewers' fears of seeing a repeat of last year's championship.  Regardless, ESPN's "playoff scenario" did enough to disrespect the Tigers that I think they will play with something to prove: they didn't even consider LSU one of the four best teams in the country.  I think Ohio State will come into the game with a purpose of avoiding last year's disaster and make the game interesting in the first half but talent wins out in college football and LSU simply has more of it.  

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