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Of bandwagons, expectations, and the overweening desire to be proven "right"

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It seems that now that UCLA and Karl Dorrell have started off 5-0, a few phenomena are rearing their ugly heads.  The first is the bandwagon fans, as evidenced by the 84,000 (give or take) attendance at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.  This is basically a no-lose proposition for the Bruins.  Another is what Matthew Zemek has taken to calling the "Bandwagon Effect", as well as the related practice of criticizing or praising teams for their early nonconference performances, and pundits and fans who seem to want nothing more than to have their preseason predictions proven correct:

there's no one-size-fits-all standard by which you can analyze teams and the games teams play. As much as one would like football analysis to be a formulaic science you can get a handle on, the truth of the matter is that analysis is an art.

[snip]

Scientists work on the basis of evidence. Theories can't become scientific laws unless or until evidence bears them out on an overwhelmingly consistent basis. In college football, though, you rarely if ever have enough evidence on which to make definitive judgments.

[snip]

This business is an art, and the sooner you accept that reality, the more you can appreciate not just the sport, but the people who try to make sense of it on a regular basis... here, and everywhere else in the media universe.

So do writers jump the gun when making postgame comments and predictions? The short answer? Of course! The longer answer? What else should be expected of logical human beings operating on minimal amounts of evidence and information?

But there's even more to it than that.  I've noticed a particularly dispreputable trend when watching College Game Day.  Lee Corse does it, but so do Mark May and others.  What is it?  They are asked to make predictions, and when they are, they inevitably say something along the lines of "I liked Cal before the season started, so I'm picking Cal to win this game."  This is, of course, utter nonsense.  The beauty of making picks at this point in the season is that we now have five or six games in order to inform our opinions.  To make a pick based upon what one thought before any games were played is to revel in ignorance.

Zemek continues:

Right now, folks in State College, South Bend (the only one-loss team that enjoys this level of status in college football), Athens, Westwood, Tallahassee, and other select locales are crowing about how "everyone is jumping on our bandwagon," as though to suggest that anyone who wasn't fully on board the bandwagon at the beginning of the year--including and especially journalists--is a stupid, know-nothing, pandering fool who supposedly figures out the obvious well after the fact.

[snip]

 You get the point: for every overflowing bandwagon that the home folks just knew would fill up during the season (in the words of famous Pittsburgh Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince after an unlikely Bucs comeback, "We had `em aaaaaaaallllllllllllllllllll the wayyyyy!"), there are dozens of empty bandwagons. Some were never loaded up in the first place, while others were jumped on by the press early in the season. This is another way of saying, "some media predictions were right, others very wrong."

That's called normal, everyday life, everyone.

Go ahead--say that the media's stupid for not knowing that Penn State would beat Ohio State to get to six-and-oh.

Go ahead--say that the press is a bunch of dumb hacks because it didn't automatically trust that the loss of many valuable players would be smoothly overcome by Mark Richt's Georgia crew.

Go ahead--say (in the opposite direction) that Oklahoma received way too much preseason attention and hype. When a team makes back-to-back BCS title games, it's kinda hard to not pay attention or (just as easily) not give a coach like Bob Stoops the benefit of the doubt.

In college football, you have to earn your way to the top. No one will give you a free ride. Georgia had to pass this test against Tennessee before being anointed as an elite ballclub. Ditto for Penn State against Ohio State. Same for UCLA against Cal.

[snip]

 Is this "bandwagon jumping?" Call it that if you like, but I prefer to call it "giving a team due credit when earned." Not prematurely, not way after the fact, but precisely when respect and extra credibility were won on the field in a high-stakes game. Isn't that the only way it ever should be in college football? Do something, then get praised. Don't expect praise until you accomplish something.

(Emphasis added.)  And isn't that the point?  Karl Dorrell and the Bruins have now earned the praise and recognition that comes with being 5-0 and defeating a top-10 undefeated team.

When we were doubtful of Karl Dorrell's abilities, at least it was based upon evidence.  You can say that the sample size was too small, or that there were other pieces of evidence we weren't taking into account, or whatever.  But I don't want those who are now taking such joy in being proved "right" to pretend for one second that they knew that this is how everything was going to play out all along.  You didn't.  You may have thought the team would be good.  But so what?  

I really don't care about who's right and who's wrong.  If such labels are even terribly meaningful for what's essentially guesswork to begin with.  Better to say that your prediction was fortuitous.  Congratulations on being right.  If that's all you care about, more power to you.

We've said it before, we'll say it again: we'd rather be wrong, because that means the team will actually be good.  So far, we've been wrong and the team has been good, and hopefully it stays that way.

Now a few moments of caution.  After the Washington game, I warned of taking how badly the team looked for more than what it was.  It was a win, but the team looked terrible.  The win over Cal presents the opposite danger.

After the Oklahoma game, it was easy to get ahead of ourselves and predict the team would go 10-0.  After the UW game, it was easy to foresee another major stumble and disappointing season.  After the Cal game, I think a lot of us are starting to think about BCS bowls again.  Slow down.

As CFN warns:

The win over Cal, and the electrifying performance from Maurice Drew, overshadowed some major problems. For the second straight week, the Bruins were outplayed and needed a late home comeback. Will that work on the road in Pac 10 play? That remains to be seen. The defense has been horrendous against the run, while the offense hasn't been consistent. While Drew was fantastic, he only ran for 65 yards making it 99 rushing yards over the last two games. Even so, the Bruins appear to be playing with confidence, and beat a great Cal team.

And really, that's all we know.  Credit where credit is due, of course.  And a top 15 ranking is assuredly deserved at this point.

But a game is a game.  A game is not a season.  This was true after OU, it was true after UW, it is true after Cal.  

The team could win the rest of its games, lose the rest of its games, or more likely, win some and lose some.  As Matthew Smith noted:

This was a huge win for their program here. That said, there were a lot of issues that got exposed here, and while it's a great win, they also showed that they can be beaten. They had to dig deep into their supply of trick plays and miracles, and they still barely won; they need to improve enough so that they can win without tapping that resource, because it isn't always going to be there for them.

If it looks like I'm rebelling against the conventional wisdom for the second straight week, it's because I am.  

However, there is one very big difference this year.  In games like the Washington and Cal game in years past, UCLA would have lost.  This year they didn't.  This is certainly a good thing.  It is clearly a mark of progress, and appears to be evidence those oh so subjective words that have been thrown around a lot, words like "character" and "heart."  On the other hand, how many times can you go to the well?  How many miracles can one team pull out of the hat?  I hesitate to even mention the 1998 team that was just one miracle short of going to the national title game (after relying on a few miracles earlier in the season to get that far).  

Smith also thinks that Maurice Drew might just be the best player in the league, but he also worries about the horrendous run defense.  Again, shades of another good but flawed Bruins team from years past.  

Let's just hope there aren't any Edgerrin Jameses or Ron Daynes out there.

Smith also asks a question that has been troubling me, "what in the world happened to Mercedes Lewis?"

So get on board now, because the bandwagon is apparently filling up.  And of course everyone knew it all along, right?

The danger now of course, is a big letdown against Washington State, or Oregon State.  And let's not forget that Arizona State is still dangerous.  But let's face it, everyone is looking forward to SC.  But for some reason, that makes me very nervous.