Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sorting Out the Big 12 South

I've been trying to figure out a fair way of breaking the three-way tie between Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech atop the Big 12 South.

In the latest developments, Texas moved past Oklahoma in the latest AP poll, and Oklahoma was a mere one point ahead of Texas in the coaches' poll. There are still some numbers to come, to be digested and then applied to the Big 12 South race.

Of course, the BCS will do that for us later today. But my objective is to find a way to break the tie and send the most appropriate representative to the conference championship game — without permitting the BCS rankings to interfere, influence or make the decision.

Oklahoma is, deservedly, proud of its high-scoring offense (although the Longhorns and Red Raiders also have put lots of points on the board this season).

And Texas is, deservedly, proud of its stingy scoring defense.

All of which supports my primary position, which is that football is a team game.

In spite of the massive attention that the "skill" players — the quarterbacks, running backs and wideouts — receive, football is still a team game. Every player has to do his part for the unit to succeed.

The quarterback with the best, most accurate arm in the country will rarely even get a pass into the air if his offensive line is unable to hold its blocks. The fastest, most elusive running back will find few holes to run through if the offensive linemen do not do their jobs.

And each coach handles his team differently. Coach A may take his starters out of the game as soon as they've built a lead of about 20 points or so. Coach B may prefer to wait until the score is more lopsided. Coach C may not take his starters out at all, no matter what the score.

Consequently, there may be huge — although technically insignificant — variations in point differentials.

In the great scheme of things, though, a win should be a win should be a win.

If we start rewarding teams because of point differentials, we encourage programs to schedule vastly inferior nonconference foes and keep pouring on the points long after the issue has been decided.

That means fewer and fewer nonconference games will be scheduled between national powers. The only meaningful games to be played during the regular season will be the ones that are played within a conference.

By emphasizing point differentials, we also encourage coaches to put their best players at risk of injury much longer than they otherwise would be inclined — strictly in the interest of adding another touchdown or two to the final score.

This season, it has been impressive that Oklahoma has scored at least 52 points in two-thirds of its games. And the offense deserves to be recognized for its accomplishments.

But the Sooners had to score a lot of points — half of the time, they gave up at least 28 to the opposition. In fact, only one Big 12 rival (Baylor) failed to score at least 21 points against the Sooners.

And, if Oklahoma State had scored 41 points against Texas as it did against OU, the Cowboys — not the Longhorns — would have come in to the Thanksgiving weekend with a chance of playing for the conference crown.

It's true that the Sooners have averaged about 59 points per game since the Oct. 11 loss to Texas. But it's also true that, in that same six-game span, the defense has given up nearly 31 points per game.

Most teams will win if they score 31 points.

On average, at least 59 other schools gave up fewer points per game this season than the Sooners.

Scoring alone, clearly, doesn't tell the story of a team's season.

And, just as clearly, defense is still important, even with all the attention that the Big Three quarterbacks have drawn this season.

So I've decided to look at seven team categories:
  1. Passing offense

  2. Rushing offense

  3. Scoring offense

  4. Scoring defense

  5. Rushing defense

  6. Passing defense

  7. Total defense
I use the following point system:

Whichever team is ranked higher among the three teams in a particular category receives one point. The team that is ranked second in that category receives two points. The team with the third-best ranking receives three points. Differentials within categories are not considered.

The team with the lowest number, therefore, is the team that should represent the division in the conference championship.

Using this approach, Texas ranks first in three of the seven categories — scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense. Texas Tech (passing offense and passing defense) and Oklahoma (rushing offense and scoring offense) each rank first in two categories.

But Oklahoma earns the edge by being no worse than second in the other five categories. The final point totals were:
  1. Oklahoma 12 points

  2. Texas 14 points

  3. Texas Tech 16 points
Under this system, Texas could have turned things around if the Longhorns had done a little better than the Sooners in the two categories where Texas was third among the three and OU was second.

Those categories were passing offense and passing defense.

Texas Tech appears to have lost whatever momentum it had prior to the Oklahoma game. The Red Raiders had a chance to make a statement against Baylor — and barely avoided an embarrassing upset. In the process, they have worked themselves out of a discussion of which they were in charge until their trip to Norman a week ago.

So the battle is between Texas and Oklahoma. Personally, I feel the best way to compare two teams is their head-to-head meeting. The outcome of that game, a win for Texas, is a fact — millions watched it on TV — whereas the assertion that Oklahoma is playing better than Texas right now is purely subjective.

It seems to me that such a conclusion puts the burden of proof on the prosecution (Oklahoma), but where is the proof that the Longhorns are playing any worse than they were playing the day they beat the Sooners? The only such evidence might be the Longhorns' last-second loss in Lubbock on Nov. 1 — but, since that time, Texas has outscored its opponents by an average of 31 points.

Nevertheless, I feel Oklahoma will probably move past Texas in the BCS rankings later today.

Whatever happens, it's sure to be controversial.

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