Thursday, November 19, 2009

On College Football and Ponzi Schemes

There are certain sportswriters I grew up reading, those I would observe from afar and think, "That's the job I want when/if I grow into a fully functioning adult male." Ivan Maisel is one of those people. He's been covering college football for two decades, and he's extremely good at it. That said, I was perplexed by his column the other day; it was, essentially, a mainstream confirmation of a low-level theory that's been building these past few weeks, one that declares this entire college football season a bust, based on the scattered Heisman race and the lack of marquee matchups these last few weeks of the season. In the column, Maisel likened this whole year to a Ponzi scheme, which seems like an inartful metaphor, but perhaps it is apt--Maisel, for instance, decries the fact that Penn State, ranked No. 9 in preseason, lost its only two quality games at home. Fair enough, but who actually ranked Penn State No. 6 in the preseason? Maisel did. So essentially, he's decrying the fact that this season did not live up to his own perception of reality. In other words, Maisel conducted a Ponzi scheme on himself. 

Well, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I happen to be enjoying this season, as I have enjoyed every single college football season since 1978. I will admit that Maisel's basic point is correct--it has been an unpredictable campaign. And maybe there is a reason for this. The Oklahoman newspaper ran a story today about Big 12 defenses catching up with the complex offensive schemes of the modern game. "Defenses are working on something," declared pirate enthusiast and spread-offense fanatic Mike Leach, and within a conference like the Big 12 or the SEC, certain teams (Texas, Florida) have been able to remain one step ahead of this "something"* defenses are working on, through a combination of luck and skill and Jesus. Outside of those conferences, however, there are still teams who can dominate simply by stepping hard on the throttle. This explains the superiority of Cincinnati and Boise State and TCU. And this means, as we enter the bowl season, that there is a pretty fascinating question yet to be answered, about whether these small conference powerhouses can catch up to the big boys by utilizing complex schemes, and whether this is all a fleeting and illusory moment in college football history, and whether defense is on the verge of reintroducing itself into the discussion. There could be at least four/five different bowl games with hyper-meaningful results. And if that's what a Ponzi scheme looks like, well, I'll buy in.

*If this "something" involves pirates, that would be awesome.

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