While the country is now a few days into one of the most compelling debates in BCS Championship history (one-loss SEC team against a major conference team that has not lost in two seasons), the Big Ten is busy handing out postseason awards.
Which is a strange thing in and of itself, considering the conference season is not done until after this Saturday night. It seems hard to decide which players and coaches are the best in the conference when the best two teams have not played each other.
However, Big Ten awards, even if quirky, prove one of the truisms of college football. Everything is based on preseason hype and bias. This frustrating bias colors the debates on everything from conference individual awards to the BCS Championship chase.
And quite frankly, that stinks.
Let's begin with the Big Ten major individual awards. For the players, the announcements may feel predestined because these same players were offered the pole position by being consensus picks on preseason all-conference teams.
The offensive player of the year is Braxton Miller. Miller certainly is a great talent, but he's not even the most valuable offensive player on his own team. That honor should go to running back Carlos Hyde, who has rushed for 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns in only nine games.
Considering that eight of those nine games were the Big Ten schedule and the fact that Carlos Hyde has carried the team more than Miller in the month of November, there's no doubt who should win this award. However, Miller won it last year and was on preseason all-conference teams, while Hyde was buried below Ameer Abdullah, Venric Mark, Melvin Gordon and others on the running back list.
Thus, Miller is the choice here. Preseason bias robbed his teammate from the honor he likely deserved, although both players would certainly rather celebrate a conference championship together.
The defensive player of the year is Chris Borland. Although this selection is less arguable than others the Big Ten has made, all three of the top contenders were consensus preseason all-conference players.
Granted, Ryan Shazier and Darqueze Dennard have also lived up to expectations, but it is those very expectations that put those three players on a pedestal to begin this process. In fact, over half of the postseason all-conference teams were copied over from the preseason version of the same awards.
While some of these players are deserving, others are living on name and reputation only. Anthony Hitchens and James Morris had outstanding seasons for Iowa both statistically and by the "eye test," but neither could break into first-team all-conference.
It's preseason bias striking again.
The most egregious of the conference awards is the coach of the year, which seems to live by unwritten rules such as (1) a good team record disqualifies a coach from the award the following year, and (2) Ohio State's coach cannot ever win this award. In other words, the preseason expectations are all that truly matter, not the coaching performance on the field.
How else can you explain the fact that Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer have never won this award in a period of 10-plus years of conference dominance? Taking nothing away from Bill O'Brien and Mark Dantonio, who have won the award in 2012 and 2013, respectively, there is no denying the merit of 24 straight wins following a 6-7 season in 2011.
Nothing else is even close to as impressive.
For O'Brien, the national and conference media just assumed Penn State would curl up and die immediately thanks to the heavy unprecedented NCAA sanctions. That was foolish given a great class of seniors coming back to lead the team, and Penn State going 8-4 a season ago was more a credit to the seniors left (which we should've seen coming) than anything Bill O'Brien did.
Michigan State won over 10 games in 2010 and 2011 and struggled with some injuries and a new quarterback in 2012. Still, the Spartans lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. That's less than 3 points per game!
So while the 7-6 record looks bleak, Michigan State really just missed out on a few breaks from another double-digit-win season. Mark Dantonio took this good team and watched it re-learn how to win the close games, leading to an 8-0 finish this year. It's a good performance, but Michigan State is not as improved as some may think based only on records and preseason expectations.
Yet that preseason bias (in this case, unwarranted low expectations instead of high) strikes once again, giving Dantonio the award.
Of course, conference awards do not really mean anything. These are nice achievements to put on the individual mantle, but the big prize is the BCS Championship.
Yet there, more acutely than anywhere else, preseason bias controls the world.
Ohio State started the season second in the national rankings while Auburn was forgotten following a 3-9 season. Thus, while Ohio State has held steady in the Top Four of the rankings all season, Auburn has had to painfully climb slowly up the rankings all year long.
Now, Ohio State holds an advantage over Auburn for few reasons, but one of them is certainly the preseason polls. If Auburn had started the season where Alabama did while Ohio State was unranked, the finish that Auburn has had would almost certainly put the Tigers at No. 2.
Same resumes, different results. Why? Preseason bias.
In another example, can anyone explain why Michigan State is struggling to just get into the Top 10 with nine wins in a row, all by double digits? The Spartans have an equivalent record to five teams above them (Auburn, Alabama, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Baylor) and two other teams with worse records (Stanford and South Carolina).
Yes, all those teams are in better conferences perception-wise. However, Michigan State has been dominating teams in a similar way as Florida State (considering the defensive nature of MSU) and only has one three-point loss, to Notre Dame.
Three of these teams started the season highly ranked and have stayed in front of Michigan State despite having seasons that generally do not compare favorably to the Spartans. As a result, Michigan State has zero chance of even being discussed for a BCS Championship berth even with a win over Ohio State.
That's not fair at all, and once again, preseason bias is at least partially to blame.
Granted, if you actually spend the time to compare team resumes, Ohio State may fall behind the likes of Auburn and Alabama. But by the same token, Michigan State should be a team in the discussion for the national championship.
Sadly, the death of the BCS and the installation of a playoff will likely not solve this problem. Not only are the national polls still going to create a narrative based on preseason perceptions, but the selection committee is going to put out periodic polls as well. But this will risk early season bias on later decisions which should be based on the entire seasons of the competing teams.
Perhaps there is nothing that can be done to remove this bias, but it sure would be nice to see things like postseason awards and national championships decided entirely on the field instead of in season preview magazines and preseason prognostications.
Preseason bias lives. And with that, one of the worst aspects of the BCS era lives on in our favorite sport.
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