Hot Reads: Frost v. Florida
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Frost v. Florida

April 09, 2018

At some point in the future I expect Stewart Mandel’s mailbag to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. It's pretty standard as far as mailbags go––it's tough to break the mold when the mold (send questions, get answers) is all there is––but it does have longevity. I've been reading that mailbag for what feels like forever, following Mandel from Sports Illustrated to Fox to now The Athletic. If you just stack all of those mailbags up, you've got a pretty good historical document chronicling the id of college football fans.

That's kind of what I expect every time I open a Mandel mailbag, another chapter in a serialized story. I've read so many of the previous installments that I couldn't stop reading now if I wanted to, but I had a professional interest in the latest. The lead question in Mandel's most recent mailbag was (paraphrasing): Did Scott Frost make the right choice in choosing Nebraska over Florida?

Mandel spends a few paragraphs pitching Frost's choice as one of the heart (his literally started beating in Nebraska) over the head (Florida is close to many good football players), and concluding that Frost did make the right choice now while wondering if we'll still think that four years from now.

Fair enough. Everybody's grace period eventually runs out, so it would be foolish to assume otherwise even if the wave of support and good vibes feels never-ending now. But there was this record-scratch moment in there as Mandel outlined the differences between Florida and Nebraska:

Purely from a resources/talent perspective, Florida is better positioned to win a national championship than Nebraska is to win a conference championship. After all, the Gators have won national titles more recently (2006 and ’08) than the Huskers last won a conference trophy (1999 in the Big 12). And right now, Nebraska has to deal with more upper-echelon teams in its league, what with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan nationally relevant.

Ummmm. Tell me if I'm the crazy one here, but there is no way this is generally true over any span of time. In a given year when the perceived gap in team strength is at its greatest? Sure, maybe that's true. Last year, for example, a Nebraska team nobody was totally sold on was given odds from 15-1 to 20-1 to win the Big Ten. Those were about the fifth-best odds in the conference. There were about five teams that had clearly better odds to win the national title at the start of the season. I'm talking about actual odds that someone will give you here, not just perceived odds.

Practically speaking, this assertion doesn't add up. If we were to go back a decade (or 20 years or 30) and combined all of Florida's national-title odds and all of Nebraska's conference-title odds, do we really expect the Gators to come out ahead? What about if we were to fast-forward 10 years? Expect it then?

No way. Winning a national title is more difficult than winning a conference title and over time that's always going to be reflected. Are there one-season exceptions? Sure. Has Alabama had better national title odds than Nebraska's conference title odds for most of Nick Saban's tenure? I assume so. Urban Meyer's Ohio State, too. But those are the gold standards of the sport at the moment. To generally say Florida has a better shot to win a national title than Nebraska does to win a conference title with no qualifier is to say that Florida's ceiling is of the Alabama/Ohio State variety and Nebraska's is, I don't know, something short of Wisconsin's current level. (The Badgers were anywhere from 3-1 to 7-1 to win the Big Ten last year.)

And there's no way I'm buying that. We, talking about we college football writers here, have an annoying tendency to overvalue circumstance (recruiting location, facilities, expectations, etc.) and undervalue coaching. Find the right coach, and almost any program has the opportunity to be really good. The game's greatest programs, those with every other advantage, are almost always only great when they have great coaches, and when they don't, they're not. 

I suspect that we do this because it's easy to evaluate a program's curb appeal, but hard to project when the same program has the coach who will actually put the team in position for titles. So we lean on what we know, and give less weight to what we don't. It makes sense that that's the tendency, but it doesn't make it right.

Don't do that.

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