Monday, October 19, 2009

This Endless Criticism Thing is Endless

The Michigan football program had the audacity to schedule a I-AA opponent (I will not give in to the FCS lingo) on Saturday which resulted in a brutal drubbing to the tune of 727 total yards. What could the brilliant minds in the Michigan Athletic Department have been thinking when they scheduled this public execution? Clearly, the mighty Michigan Wolverines had nothing to gain against the sting-less Delaware State Hornets. Wolverines all over the world should be ashamed to call themselves alumni of a university willing to schedule such a detestable scrimmage. Can you imagine another big-time college football program doing such an obviously ridiculous thing? Other than Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Miami (FL), Mississippi, Mississippi St, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio St, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., Penn St., S. Carolina, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, and Wisconsin, I can't think of a single school that would schedule and then clobber a horrible I-AA team. I'm so disgusted by the events of this past weekend that I can barely gather my thoughts for this post. However, in the name of fake journalism, I'll try to set aside my disgust just long enough to finish my thought.

The only teams missing from the massive and virtual comprehensive list of major college football powers listed above are teams from the Pac-10 as well as Texas, Tennessee, and LSU. You don't see USC, Oregon or UCLA routinely scheduling I-AA cupcakes not because of any sort of philosophical objection but rather because the Pac-10 plays nine conference games leaving only three non-conference opponents. The other BCS conferences play at least four non-conference games leaving ample room for a I-AA filler. Don't be quick to lavish Texas, Tennessee, and LSU with praise for avoiding I-AA opponents. It would be easy to champion the "anyone but I-AA" cause but clearly the standard should be more than that. Texas, Tennessee, and LSU routinely play some of the worst non-conference schedules in college football. This year alone, Texas played Louisiana-Lafayette, Wyoming, UTEP, and UCF. Failing to schedule even just one BCS opponent is every bit as egregious as scheduling a I-AA opponent, if not worse. Miami (FL) scheduled I-AA Florida A&M this year but also added Oklahoma and a road game at South Florida. Which schedule is more abhorrible, Texas's or Miami's? Tennessee--while avoiding the dreaded I-AA opponent--managed to fit Ohio, UAB, and Memphis on its schedule. LSU scheduled the Tour de Louisiana with Louisiana-Lafayette, Tulane, and Louisiana Tech. Is it worse to schedule one I-AA opponent in an otherwise challenging non-conference schedule or routinely schedule horrible non-conference opponents who hang on to I-A status by name only? Underneath all of the faux outrage created by Michigan's beatdown of DSU lies the real issue: without a playoff, college football has become the most superficial of beauty contests where fake breasts and straightened noses are treated as the real thing. All that matters is the final product--or record--and how it's achieved is irrelevant.

It has become chic to talk about the proliferation of I-AA opponents as if this phenomenon popped up out of nowhere but the truth is that these glorified scrimmages have been a part of college football for years. Miami (FL) started the trend of making a I-AA opponent a staple of its non-conference schedule back in the early-90's. Starting in 1992, Miami played I-AA opponents for five consecutive seasons resulting in the following scores: 52-6, 49-3, 56-0, 30-7, and 38-0. Like any good trend, scheduling I-AA opponents caught on like wildfire. Following Miami's lead, Kansas and Oklahoma St. were two of the pioneers of scheduling annual I-AA matchups. Kansas has scheduled a I-AA opponent in 11 of the last 12 years. Oklahoma St. has been almost as dedicated doing so in 9 of the last 10 years. What Michigan did on Saturday has been going on for decades right down to the quality of opponent and final margin of victory. A lot was made following the game of just how bad DSU was and how big the margin of victory was. Contrary to popular belief, DSU is no worse than many of the I-AA teams that find themselves on I-A schedules every year. Oklahoma played a I-AA opponent in each of the last two years. The combined record of those opponents was 1-18. The combined score of the two games was 121-2. Where was the outrage when Oklahoma scheduled a I-AA opponent, first of all, and then where was the outrage at the margin of victory and quality of I-AA opponent? It's not just Oklahoma, either. Trying to predict what year a I-AA team is going to be "good" is like Fat Albert trying to get in on a round of double dutch jump rope.

Nobody likes watching massacres. I certainly don't like watching Michigan dismember a team like Delaware State. If it were up to me, there would be a playoff that encouraged as many elite non-conference clashes as possible. That's not the case and until it is, complaining about I-AA teams showing up on schedules will garner as much traction as scheduling a D-2 team in college basketball. Translation: nobody cares! What Michigan did on Saturday was simply align itself with the rest of college football. Major college football is a business. Savvy Athletic Directors like Bill Martin understand that getting an extra home game does wonders for his bottom line. I'm sure he would've preferred to avoid the empty ridicule that comes from playing a I-AA opponent but he was limited by logistics. Michigan had an open date in the middle of the Big Ten schedule. Martin needed to find a team that could play in Ann Arbor on that day without asking for a return visit. As it turned out, Delaware State was the entirety of his options. It was a smart business decision by Martin and it was something that has been done hundreds of times by his AD counterparts. Does the excuse that everyone else is doing it make it OK? YES! As long as the NCAA allows wins over I-AA opponents to count towards bowl eligibility, then not playing I-AA opponents--and passing on multi-million dollar gates in the process--out of some misguided attempt at justice is just stupid.

Michigan is way late to the party, anyways. Saturday marked only the second time Michigan has played a I-AA opponent since 1943 while some schools are playing two in the same season. Clemson played two in 2008 and clubbed them by a combined total of 99-17. Florida State also played two in 2008 and won by a score of 115-7. The combined records of FSU's two I-AA opponents were 4-20. Texas Tech played two in both 2005 and 2008. Georgia Tech played two last year while North Carolina plays two this year. The NCAA has done a grave injustice to college football by allowing this to go on. Over the last decade, the NCAA has softened bowl eligibility requirements to the paper thin levels they're at today. Not too long ago, only one win versus a I-AA opponent could count towards bowl eligibility every four years. From there it moved to once every two years and now it's at one per year. Even under the most stringent rule the NCAA had, Michigan's win over DSU would've counted since it was its first I-AA win in 66 years. Michigan has been on the severe low end of taking advantage of the NCAA's I-AA allowances. If you want to complain about the system, take a dump on the NCAA. Leave Michigan out of the discussion.

Michigan did nothing wrong on Saturday. So, why all the drama? In case you hadn't noticed, Michigan has been the default criticism school of choice for the last two years. No matter how ridiculous, hypocritical, or downright delusional the accusation, nothing has been off limits. The scattering of criticism from hammering DSU is no different. In a break from the norm, however, ESPN did not lead the assault. In fact, virtually all of the criticism has come from op-eds. Anyone around the country who saw highlights of Michigan's dismantling of DSU was given a very favorable impression of Michigan by the networks. Instead of harping on the fact that DSU was a I-AA school, ESPN, NBC, and the Big Ten Network went through the highlights like it was just another game. The criticism came from one likely source and another unlikely source. While the network highlights never mentioned anything negative towards Michigan, a few writers decided to use the Michigan-DSU game as their platform for what has gone wrong with major college football. It's curious that the Stewart Mandel's and Matt Hinton's of the world chose the least egregious violator of I-AA assault to launch their dissatisfaction for the system. What did Michigan do differently? The answer is nothing. In fact, Michigan took its first-string quarterback out after one series. It took its second string QB out before halftime. It's third string walk-on QB was done in the third quarter. Then came the fourth string and fifth string QB's to close out the game. DSU's long snapper was injured early on. The back-up was so poor that Michigan could've blocked every DSU punt. Instead, Rich Rodriguez called off the punt block for the rest of the game. Michigan held out its first and second string running backs, took out nearly all of its starters after halftime, and played 84 players. If we weren't talking about big bad Michigan, the epitome of all that is wrong in college football, this could've been a human interest story. To some, it was.

Yet, for all the compassion Michigan showed in drubbing DSU, sportswriters were unwilling to give Michigan the same. Somehow, the fact that DSU chose to forfeit a conference game to play Michigan became Michigan's responsibility. As did the fact that Delaware State isn't as good as it was last year when this game was scheduled and the fact that DSU was without its starting QB. If you want to criticize DSU for forfeiting a league game, then fine. Go for it. Michigan had nothing to do with that decision. Even then, I would suggest that DSU is probably more in tune with the needs of its program than a random sportswriter. DSU took home $550,000 for coming to Michigan Stadium. What do you think is going to do more for the DSU program, winning a single football game or taking in $550,000? If the answer was the former, I don't think DSU would've shown up on Saturday.

Getting criticism from national columnists is nothing new for Michigan. It would be surprising if that didn't happen. What is new--and loathsome--is the ridicule Michigan received from some of its own fans including reporters from its own subscription sites. The word "embarrassing" was thrown around liberally. The game was described by many as "even worse than a bye week" and "below the standards" of Michigan football. That sort of thinking is what earned the Michigan fanbase its "stuck up" reputation in the first place. Its also the last thing Michigan--a program that has been unfairly raked over the coals again and again--needs at this point. The people making these criticisms are the same who were appalled by the Detroit Free Press's manufactured practice-gate investigation and its absurd follow-up on Michigan's team GPA. Criticizing the program for doing exactly what every other major program has done for years is just as damaging and petty. Playing a I-AA opponent is not "embarrassing" when virtually every school does it. Under that logic, allowing the flow and length of televised games to be dictated by commercials should also be embarrassing. How could any school allow the commercialization of college athletics reach such a point that it infringes on the integrity of the game? That sounds silly. You don't see anyone singling out Michigan for allowing ABC to take a three-minute commercial break in the middle of a major football game. I don't see the difference.

This was a mismatch. The same outcome would've occurred if Michigan would've scheduled Army, San Jose State, or Temple. The fact the some people are willing to distinguish a difference between destroying a clearly overmatched I-A team and doing the same to a I-AA team is laughable. There's no question that Michigan would've gained more by playing a mid-tier program like, say, Fresno State. However, it's silly and ignorant to suggest that Michigan gained nothing by playing DSU and, yet, would've gained something by beating the tar out of North Texas. Whatever Michigan would've gained hammering North Texas (a I-A school), it gained by doing the same to DSU. At the very least Michigan gained the vast gate from another home game. The Michigan Athletic Department is entirely self-sufficient. The Michigan football program funds the entire athletic budget. Before a single yard was gained on the field, Saturday was a huge gain for Michigan Athletics. Rodriguez also got a chance to see his second-stringers play against live competition which is invaluable for evaluation purposes. Denard Robinson played nearly as much against DSU as he had the entire season. Freshmen and sophomores make up 80% of Michigan's roster; simply getting on the field will make it easier the next time they get into a game. Most importantly, this was a chance for a young team to take a breath without falling completely out of routine. With so many talking heads questioning the gain from a game like this, I can't think of a single negative that resulted from it.

Michigan was never going to be challenged by DSU. It was a glorified scrimmage that gave Michigan a chance to get a number of its underclassmen experience while also providing an extra week of game-planning for Penn State. Would it have been more entertaining to see Michigan battle Boise State? Sure. It would also be great if there was a playoff, the NCAA barred games against I-AA opponents all together, and Gary Danielson got lost on his way to his next gig. Until the NCAA changes the landscape of college football, what happened on Saturday in Ann Arbor was not criticizable. For the people looking for a reason to criticize Michigan, there will always be plenty of crap to package as controversy. For the rest of the college football world, Michigan played another game and beat another opponent. Until teams like Florida State, Texas Tech, and Clemson get criticized for hammering two I-AA opponents in one season, I think we can lay off one of the last schools to schedule just one such opponent.


Jim said...

I'm just happy that David Cone got a chance to play. I used to think that guy was recruited to hold a clipboard for four years.

Allen said...

Liked the Article Jake. Nice work as always! See you on Saturday...

Jake said...

I'm surprised that you underestimated Cone, Jim. I thought it was pretty obvious to everyone that he was recruited to play two fourth quarter series in a blowout against Delaware State! :)

Thanks, Gaver! See you Saturday!


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