19 July 2008

Fair-Weather Facts: Disrobing the Blue Ribbon Bias

I'm writing from a passenger train in the United Kingdom en route from Oxford to London. I'm across the pond studying comparative legal processes for the summer. If you're a regular reader of The Rivalry, Esq. you haven't noticed, because I haven't mentioned it. I'm 100 percent wired at my desk making it easy to keep up to date with the American football scene.

And the truth is, I like this temporary separation from sport because July has always been and will always be a sort of college football purgatory. With two weeks until the first snaps over the sun-scorched August grass mark the beginning of fall camp in Columbus, it's easy to get complacent.

And so, like ants on a dropped Popsicle, commentators dissect -- turning men into numbers and programs into sums.

It's a process I usually cherish -- a word tonic for the anxious fan's thirst. But lately, there's been a lack of accountability at the top.

"After initially rating the Buckeye Offense and Defense units a C and C+ respectively, Blue Ribbon changed the grades to B+ and B without explanation."

Each year in an attempt to garner publicity for its flagship college product NCAA Football 2009, EA Sports outlines their Top 25 picks for the fall. To maximize the effectiveness of the hype campaign, they spread the countdown out over a full week -- releasing ascending ranks in neat groupings of five. Like all prognostications, the selections are often more normative than empiric.

Still, I tune in every day to find out where my beloved virtual Scarlet will land.

Two weeks ago it was the 25 Toughest Stadiums. The Horseshoe placed third -- which, considering its lack of permanent lights (and therefore, night kickoffs) is respectable. But as I scanned down from the photo-realistic screenshot, I noticed EA had mistakenly listed the official capacity as 89,500. The OSU Department of Athletics reports the Shoe presently seats 102,329 -- a number that often swells to over 107,000 during marquis contests. ESPN has since corrected the feature. So no big deal, right?

That's what I thought -- until I turned to last week's offering, the Top 25. Packaged in the form of streaming video gameplay, the lifelike simulations give the fan a small preview of how the premiere matchups of 2008 will go down. What's particularly clever is the built-in equilibrium -- after we watch No. 4 USC's Joe McKnight take an outside pitch 30 yards for a touchdown against Ohio State -- Brian Robiskie returns the favor for the No. 3 Buckeyes as he sources an open field catch for an easy six against the Trojan secondary.

But for all the effort the press relations folks at EA put into editing their segments, they must have forgotten to conduct basic research on their scripts. As a result the preview for No. 5 Florida opens with the observation that "The Gators look to build off their Gator-Bowl victory last season..."

Strange. I could have sworn Florida was swamped by the Michigan Wolverines in last season's Capital One Bowl. The only thing they might want to build on from that effort is the pressure their defensive line put on Mike Hart.

Still, EA Sports makes video games. Clearly, they can't be expected to deliver at the same level as professional sports writers.

That's why I was absolutely flabbergasted when I read Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook's Ohio State Team Preview.

After spending 95 paragraphs absolutely gushing over the Buckeyes, their 18 returning starters, super-recruit Terrelle Pryor, and conference favorite status the preview proceeds to give the Scarlet a lower average than Clemson, BYU, and California, none of whom figure to crack the top 10 when the pre-season polls are released. Ohio State will easily place in the top 4.

After initially rating the Buckeye Offense and Defense units a C and C+ respectively, Blue Ribbon changed the grades to B+ and B without explanation.

Okay, call it another mistake -- but this time there's something substantively wrong with the result. Blue Ribbon writes the following about the Buckeye defense:

"The Buckeyes lose one starter and gain one starter, so the net result might be improved play overall."

Considering that last year the "same" defense (now "improved") ranked first in the nation statistically might be grounds to award them the coveted A+ (traditionally reserved for power programs like BYU). But no. As Blue Ribbon sees it, this merits a B, a lower grade than an offense returning the same number of players that ranked in the bottom 50% (62nd out of 119) of FBS teams in 2007.

Intangibles aside (Blue Ribbon actually has a separate mark for those variables) this kind of blatant intermeddling of logic and emotion is usually reserved for the Blogosphere -- not the glossy pages of a commercial almanac. It's irrational, and amateur.

That's why I'm inclined to grin when the preview writer concludes in part by noting, "The talent and depth is amazing."

Amazing? Really? On a B Average squad?

What kind of adjective will Blue Ribbon be forced to use when they write about an A+ effort?

How about capricious?

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