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Posted by Doug on December 1, 2006

I say no.

My p-f-r blog colleague Chase supports the Wolverines' candidacy for the second slot in college football's championship game. Back in the comments to an old post, he put it thusly:

We’re trying to decide which team is the second best in the nation. I don’t understand how a knock against a team in the “which one of these is the second best in the country” can be “they lost to the first best team in the country.”

What Chase is saying --- and he does have a point --- is that losing to Ohio State does not provide any evidence that Michigan is not the second best team in the country. In fact, we don't have any evidence at all that Michigan is not the second best team in the country. In the case of USC and Florida, we do have some evidence that they're not #2. Namely, losses to Oregon State and Auburn respectively.

But that's just half the equation. The other side of it is, we don't have much evidence that Michigan is the second best team in the country either. Or at least not nearly as much as we have for USC. According to my margin-not-included computer rankings (which are pretty vanilla), USC has beaten four top-25 teams while Michigan has only beaten two. USC has beaten eight top-50 teams to Michigan's five (and that includes #49 and #50). If losing to #1 doesn't provide evidence that you're not #2, then I claim that beating #63, #68, #77, #79, #93, and #94 doesn't provide any evidence that you are #2.

They both beat Notre Dame, so cross them off the list.

Michigan's most impressive wins have been against Wisconsin (11), Penn State (27) and Minnesota (49). USC has seven wins (not counting Notre Dame) against teams ranked higher than Minnesota. The Big Ten is simply down this year. That's not Michigan's fault, but it's a fact.

When you look at "second order wins" (i.e. teams that were beaten by teams that were beaten by Michigan), you see just how comparitively weak the Wolverines' schedule has been:

First- and second-order wins by Michigan (second-order in parentheses)

11 - Notre Dame
12 - Wisconsin
(23 - Georgia Tech)
27 - Penn State
(28 - Georgia)

That's all of them in the top 30. Their next-best is a second-order win over UCLA, who USC is going to get a first-order win against tomorrow.

First- and second-order wins by USC (second-order in parentheses)

(8 - Auburn)
9 - Arkansas
11 - Notre Dame
(13 - Tennessee)
15 - Cal
(16 - Oklahoma)
(20 - Oregon State)
(21 - BYU)
(23 - Georgia Tech)
24 - Nebraska
(26 - Texas A&M)
(27 - Penn State)

And Florida might get added to the list tomorrow.

Of course, Michigan has no "second order losses" at all --- which is essentially Chase's point --- while USC has second order losses to Boise State as well as some Pac-10 middlers. That's certainly part of the discussion, but in my opinion the lopsidedness of the win lists trumps that. The reason I'd favor USC over Michigan is essentially the same reason I'd favor USC over Boise State, just to a lesser degree.

Finally, I know the Michigan-Ohio State game was a Three Point Game, but did anyone really think, at any point after the first quarter, that Michigan was going to win it? By my count, in the second half they had the ball for only seven plays during which they trailed by less than a touchdown. They gained ten yards on those seven plays. When a team gets three turnovers, gives none, and still trails for the last 51 minutes of the game, that's not a performance, in my view, that demands a rematch.

Trojan haters take heart. Because I wasted my time writing this before the UCLA game, they'll surely lose that one to make it all moot.