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Down and Out in College Football: Upsets, Confirmation Bias and Preseason Poll Inertia

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College football’s apple cart was upturned. Seven Top 15 teams were defeated (six of them plausible BCS title contenders). Five ranked SEC schools lost as favorites. The nation’s No. 3 overall team, Clemson, lost by 40 points at home. Perhaps, it was just a topsy-turvy weekend. Perhaps, we should stop forming steadfast opinions before the season starts.

USATSI_7502386_153192880_lowresSEC Apocalypse… We could call the SEC overrated. We could also call the SEC deeper than perceived. Both statements are simplistic, but contain some truth.

The SEC is overrated, to an extent. SEC teams have the best talent. They are the biggest media draw. They have dominated BCS games. This breeds a confirmation bias. Strengths that conform to the narrative, such as LSU’s newfangled offense, are accepted uncritically. Weaknesses that don’t conform, Texas A&M’s atrocious defense, get glossed over.

Eight months of the college football calendar is unadulterated discussion. This engenders inertia and perceived absolutes heading into the season. Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M receive the benefit of the doubt and have to fight their way out of the Top 25.

The SEC is also quite deep, though. Dan Mullen may be the conference’s most disappointing coach. His fault has been only turning the 13th best program into a perennial bowl team. Ole Miss and Auburn are legit 8-10 win teams, that may finish ahead of the teams they upset. Tennessee and Vanderbilt are up and coming, well coached and a threat to pick off a team at home. Maligned Missouri is now in the top five. Alabama may be on its own tier. Beyond that, there’s a lot of parity. The difference has been disparate schedules and preseason ranking.

Clemson - ouchFlawless Victory… Clemson is not in the SEC, but the Tigers still benefitted from a similar confirmation bias. Most analysts made Tajh Boyd, Chad Morris and the LSU bowl win mantras for eight months. Then the Georgia win satisfied the remaining doubters. Most ignored their vulnerable defense and the underwhelming offensive production numbers when teams could generate pressure. Clemson is now outside the Top 50 in yards/play offense and defense. This was not a “Clemsoning.” With hindsight and without preconceived notions, the surprising thing was not Clemson losing, but Clemson losing so hard. At least this guy had a good time.

The ACC isn’t “back.” But the Seminoles are. Florida State has a talented defense and the nation’s best quarterback. They look capable of walking into Death Valley and almost anywhere else and emerging with a win. FSU will be favorites the rest of the way, however, “Jimboing” remains as much of a thing as “Clemsoning.” It’s hard to ignore the string of conference games this decade – N.C. State and UNC in 2010, Wake Forest and Virginia in 2011, N.C. State in 2012 – where Florida State had no business losing but did. FSU had first-round NFL draft picks at quarterback those years too.

The Dream is Over… UCF upset Louisville 38-35 at Papa John’s Stadium. The Cardinals will not go undefeated. Barring a UCF letdown against their soft remaining schedule, the Cardinals may not be going to the BCS either. Teddy Bridgewater may finish his college career in the Russell Athletic Bowl. There was a bit of confirmation bias with this team as well. There was praise for Teddy and the Florida win. Swept under the carpet went the losses to UConn and Syracuse and a track record of not putting teams away.

Return to Fundamentals… Stanford has an identity. For perhaps the first time this season, they found it for a full 60 minutes. The Cardinal defensive front stuffed the run and got pressure on Brett Hundley. The offense pounded Tyler Gaffney (36 carries for 171 and two touchdowns) and put Kevin Hogan in spots where he could be effective. It was enough to beat UCLA. We’ll see whether it will be enough to hang with Oregon in two weeks. Or, for that matter, 6-1 Oregon State in Corvallis.

Michigan girl sad face

Basketball on Grass… In the SEC it would be great quarterback play. In the Pac 12, it would be pure excitement. In the untrendy, dad jean wearing Big Ten, it was just terrible defense. Michigan and Indiana combined for 1,323 yards and 110 points on 159 plays. Devin Gardner threw for 503 yards on just 29 pass attempts. Jeremy Gallon broke a Big Ten record with 369 yards receiving. That was not the type of game Michigan wants to play. But that was the type of game Michigan is equipped to win, at least against Indiana.

Low Class… College football games have an allotted time. But it appears Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti decides when they should end. Oregon scored two fourth quarter touchdowns to go up 62-24 before deciding to stop playing. Mike Leach disregarded the memo, kept his starters in and scored two more touchdowns. Aliotti termed this brazen act of playing football “low class” after the game. He apologized the next day. It’s not clear what Leach thought he was doing. It’s not like college football is a popularity contest…judged by people with short memories looking at boxscores…Oh…

Back in the Saddle Again… Quietly, for a No. 1 team still the odds on favorite to win its fourth BCS title in five years, the Alabama defense has rounded into form. In five games since facing Texas A&M, the Tide have allowed one offensive touchdown. They don’t seem to have been afflicted by great opposing quarterback play.

The Man in the Mirror… The Ohio State marching band can spell four letter words, and do the moonwalk.

Odds and Sods… Ole Miss linemen could not find Hugh Freeze for Gatorade bath. Nick O’Leary trucked Clemson’s Travis Blanks. Ole Miss party girl was spotted at the Grove. Butch Jones and Dave Hart chest bumped after the South Carolina win. Carlos Hyde scored this touchdown.

[Photos via USA Today Sports]

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