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Where Gordon Gee and His Critics Are Right -- And Where They Are Wrong

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I'm sure you've probably already heard what Gordon Gee said, but it's also Thanksgiving. There are more important things to do than listen to the Ohio State president, like carving the turkey and checking for lint on your sweater. But someone asked Gee, who as a defender of the BCS makes a perfect villain for playoff supporters, what he thought about the chances of Boise State or TCU to play for a national title.

Well, I don’t know enough about the Xs and Os of college football. I do know, having been both a Southeastern Conference president and a Big Ten president, that it’s like murderer’s row every week for these schools. And so we do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor. We play very fine schools on any given day. So I think until a university runs through that gauntlet that there’s some reason to believe that they not be the best teams to represent their universities in the big ballgame.

Between Jim Delany and Gordon Gee, I have no idea where the Up North conference gets its reputation for being full of humorless and arrogant elites. But I digress.

As you might imagine, Gee's remarks were not received well by Boise State or TCU, or many of the supposedly Little Sisters of the Poor-esque schools that play them. Boise President Bob Kustra had perhaps the best rejoinder, pointing at an Ohio State schedule that includes Marshall and Ohio.

If they’re not playing the Little Sisters of the Poor, they’re playing the Little Brothers. I don’t mind somebody stating that they don’t think we ought to be in the national championship, but to do it with such erroneous information as Gordon Gee has used, gets under the skin of all of us who thought university presidents were supposed to be standing for fairness, equity and truth in how we portray our universities. And he’s doing a very poor job of that at the moment.

I have yet to hear any response from the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are a real thing. (Site plays music)

Immediately, a few memes emerged about the comments: First, that Gordon Gee is a pompous and condescending know-it-all, but people quickly realized that this is a redundancy when talking about a Big Ten president. Second, that this might cause some sort of a backlash that could bring about the end of the BCS, which is one of the most bizarre ideas I have ever heard. While I don't want a playoff, I realize that the vast majority of college football fans want a playoff. I have no idea how this statement, however idiotic it might be, is supposed to cause a backlash among fans who overwhelmingly hate the BCS to begin with. Or how it is going to change the minds of university presidents who largely think like Gee.

Then, we got to the real point of the debate: Was Gee right, or were his critics? And I hate to cop out, but the answer is that both of them are. Gee got the broad outlines right, but he was the wrong person to complain, and he ignored the fact that there are some good teams in the Mountain West and the WAC.

To an extent, Boise State's president is right on the details about Ohio State; by some measures, the Buckeyes' schedule is not a lot more difficult than Boise's, and Ohio State was seen as a potential national champion before the season. But Gee has a point here, too; according to Jeff Sagarin -- and no, he's not a perfect way of doing things, but he might be the best we've got because he ranks 245 teams from FBS and FCS -- Ohio State is in the middle of a three-game stretch in which no opponent is ranked lower than 46th. Boise State has no such stretch on its schedule; in fact, there is no three-game period in which Boise doesn't have at least one team ranked 80th or below on its schedule. Even so, Ohio State's current streak is the only one where there's not at least one team ranked 80th or below on the calendar, so the Buckeyes don't have much to complain about.

That doesn't mean that Gee is completely wrong; he's just the president of the wrong school to be making the complaint. Take Auburn as a better example. Boise's top opponent, Virginia Tech, is ranked 18th by Sagarin; Auburn faces four Top 16 opponents, including three in the Top 10. It faced No. 9 Arkansas and No. 7 LSU in back-to-back weeks. All but four of Auburn's opponents are ranked 60th or better; all but four of Boise's opponents are ranked worse than 60th.

Oregon's schedule is not as daunting as Auburn in some ways, but it still stacks up as far more difficult than Boise's or TCU's. Oregon actually faces just three teams not ranked better than 60th, even though some of those are awful teams, like Portland State (169) and New Mexico (170). But if you stop there, you'll notice one of the differences. New Mexico is an epically bad team in TCU's Mountain West Conference this year; the recent cellar-dweller in the Pac-10, Washington State, is ranked 72nd by Sagarin.

TCU fares a bit better than Boise in some respects, but it still has five teams ranked below 100th, more than any other undefeated this year. Half of its opponents are ranked below 60th; its highest ranked foe is 22nd.

Here's the kicker: conference schedules. These are the teams that you play year-in and year-out, against whom a majority of your games are played, and an indicator of what sets conferences like the Pac-10 and SEC apart from the MWC and WAC. Here are the ranks of the teams in the conference schedules of each undefeated team and Ohio State, according to Sagarin.

  • Auburn: 6, 7, 9, 16, 28, 35, 58, 79
  • Boise State: 24, 32, 68, 80, 83, 115, 157, 164
  • Ohio State: 14, 21, 36, 41, 46, 86, 104, 105
  • Oregon: 2, 17, 19, 22, 27, 29, 44, 49, 72
  • TCU: 23, 43, 47, 59, 107, 127, 135, 170

I have never questioned the idea that Boise State or TCU could play with anyone in the country for a game or two. In fact, that question is immaterial to my BlogPoll ballot, because I rank based on resume. And that's why I don't always rank Boise or TCU as others do; the games just aren't there to back it up. But even if you want to weigh things based on who "could play with anyone in the country," that's sort of the wrong question. Teams like Auburn and Oregon are playing with teams that are as good as almost anyone in the country -- and they're doing it more often than not. Boise and TCU say out-of-conference schools won't play them; but even if those schools would schedule the non-AQ teams, the non-AQ teams would still return to conference games full of relatively weak opponents.

Then again, this is hardly the year for the Ohio State president to be talking about the strength of his league schedule. It's not a heck of a lot better than Boise State's. And if he doesn't consider Eastern Michigan, ranked 167th by Sagarin, to be Little Sisters of the Poor, I'd love to hear his definition of the cliche.

But Gee made another mistake: By focusing on the bad teams that Boise and TCU do play every year, he ignored the fact that both play some pretty good teams. He's lumping the quality teams from the MWC and WAC in with the dregs of those leagues -- or what will be known in the new WAC as "the front-runners." Back on topic: Utah, Air Force and San Diego State hardly count as LSP schools; in fact, they are quality programs that compare very well to some of the Big Ten teams on Ohio State's docket. Even BYU, going through one its worst years in a long time, is ranked higher than three of the Buckeyes' conference opponents. Nevada and Hawaii are good teams, and Fresno State is at worst mediocre. And a league that has Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana ought not sneer at the mediocre.

And that means that Gee shouldn't have been the one to raise questions about the schedules for Boise and TCU, but that doesn't mean that the questions he raised weren't valid. The non-AQ schools play some good teams, but they do not play as many as Auburn and Oregon, even when non-conference games are factored in. And that's why, if all four go undefeated, Auburn and Oregon ought to be the ones playing for the national title in January.

Even if Gordon Gee is acting like an arrogant idiot.