Friday, November 25, 2016

Harbaugh vs. Urban Meyer Part II: Head-to-Head Wins Matter

Danville, Kentucky -- Once upon a time, when a man beat a man, he beat a man. Achieving victory --- whether it took place in the bowling alley, the ballot box, the football field, or the baseball diamond --- used to designate the superiority of one competitor over the other.

Once upon a time, I used to regularly whoop my brother-in-law at golf. I'm not much of a golfer; I've never been the type to hang around country clubs or obsess over the PGA championship. Yet, when I would play golf with my accursed brother-in-law as a gesture of goodwill towards my sister, my golf skills felt transcendent. Maybe it was the burning resentment; maybe it was my boiling blood; maybe it was the Fireball I'd pregame with. My putts were immaculate and I would drive the ball across the field with majestic precision. The defeats were so humiliating for my poor brother-in-law that he became too embarrassed to show his face around the greens. With each consecutive loss that I handed him, my dominance over him became clearer and clearer. 

These days, winning is not considered winning. Though Donald Trump prevailed over Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, Clinton's supporters refuse to concede and instead demand that the election be audited. NCAA football rankings are similarly indecisive, failing to reward victories and punish defeats. If only the NCAA football rankings appreciated the unambiguous glory of a head-to-head win. College football is broken. Most polls and rankings are too reliant on murky metrics like "strength of schedule" and "quality wins and losses," downplaying the importance of mano-e-mano triumphs over rivals.

Luckily there is one game this rivalry weekend where winning the head-to-head match-up will mean something. That game is perhaps the greatest rivalry of all: Michigan vs. Ohio State, the second confrontation between Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer. Folks, there is so much on the line. Harbaugh is fighting to prove Michigan's renaissance is real, and that his Wolverines can hang with the big boys. The milk-drinking, steak-eating Harbaugh is a throwback to the classy days of Bo Schembechler. Urban Meyer is a throwback to mercenaries like King George III's Hessian hired guns. The stakes could not be higher.

The Wolverines-Buckeyes showdown will not only be fought for vengeance over the Toledo Border War of 1935: it will determine the competitors in the Big 10 title game. If Ohio State beats Michigan and Pennsylvania State beats Michigan State, OSU and Penn State will vie for Big 10 supremacy and a playoff berth.

Yet, if Michigan beats Ohio State, there is no guarantee Pennsylvania State will get to vie for the Big 10 title and a playoff spot, in spite of Penn State's stunning 24-21 victory over the #2 ranked Buckeyes earlier this year. Folks, that's a grotesque miscarriage of justice. Does Penn State's head-to-head victory over the Buckeyes mean nothing?

Unfortunately, this injustice is all too common in college football. Look at the travesty that befell the Baylor Bears in 2014: in their head-to-head regular season match-up, Baylor beat TCU 61-58. And what a victory it was, folks. Baylor was down 21 with 9:30 left. Baylor, through sheer force of will, scored 24 points in those last 9 minutes and thirty seconds to pull a stunning victory from the jaws of defeat. Both Baylor and TCU finished 11-1. TCU's only loss was to Baylor. Some nerds said TCU should be ranked higher than Baylor despite losing the head-to-head match-up. These folks could not be more wrong. 

Look, nerds. I have no horse in this race, even though I'm from Kentucky, where people race horses a lot. I don't have a college degree and thus have no strong affiliations to any particular college team. I just want to see the right champion crowned. Advanced stats don't crown our champions. Winning does. In any sport, it is exceedingly rare that the consensus best team becomes the eventual champion. Winning is the only metric we care about: that's why we have a playoff instead of declaring the team with the best adjusted efficiency margin the winner beforehand.

A few pieces of advice for all college football rankers, voters, and pollsters: stop sleeping on Western Michigan, an undefeated team with a compelling case to be the #2 team behind Alabama
Here's some more advice: if two teams are directly vying for a playoff spot, the head-to-head win should be the tiebreaker, not some nebulous and arbitrary standard like "strength of schedule." It's time to go back to that "once upon a time" where winning mano-e-mano meant something. It's time to make wins matter again.