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Friday, August 12, 2005


Ever have one of those Yosemite Sam moments where something you read just makes you go "OOOOOOOOHHHHHHH WHY I OUGHTA"? Yeah. Well, Terry Bowden's Big Ten preview for Yahoo Sports just made me jump up into the air, steam billowing out my ears, hands grasping for my humorously oversized hat. And it all started with this sentence:

OSU is a different team with Troy Smith at quarterback. He adds a dimension to the offense that opens up things for everybody else.
Oh, man. That's severely disconnected from what passes for reality at mgoblog. It also provides an opportunity for me to digress into

A Diatribe About Human Nature

Ernest Shazor was an All-American last year and a Thorpe finalist despite playing on a defense that utterly imploded its last four games. Pat Massey is coming in for a John Navarre-level bludgeoning from Michigan fans despite having essentially no role in the same defense's collapse. Some people think Troy Smith doesn't suck.

Why is this the case? Evolutionary psychology. For serious! Each of these players has had one high profile event (killing Dorien Bryant, not sacking Vince Young, playing Michigan, respectively) that seriously distorted everyone's perception of their abilities. Check it:
  • Human perception is "probable and definite," as William James put it. That means that when your mind gets enough information to identify something, man, it goes for it. A congress of leaves in the jungle arranges itself in a sort of stripe-y, orange-and-black, tail-shaped fashion and OMG IT'S A TIGER!!! Conclusions are leapt to. Good for not getting eaten, but problematic when you're wrong with your conclusion and no further information is provided; you can never swing your probable to another definite.
  • We are invested in being correct. So unbelievably so. Attend any political rally, or, I dunno, head over to any of the screamier political blogs, and you'll realize two things:
    • I have to take a shower.
    • This really isn't about believing in principles, it's about believing that I'm right.
    Humanity's survival was always based on its ability to apply gathered knowledge. We are soft and pink and not particularly beweaponed. The reason we eat shark meat instead of the other way around is because we have brains that assimilate important information in one take--tigers eat people--and use that knowledge immediately. Any attack on our accumulated knowledge is met with outright hostility.
  • We are naturally inclined to absorb information from others. When one person finds out that those damn tigers avoid certain red berries at all costs, that's good for everyone to know. We built hundreds of languages with thousands of words, devoting large sections of our mind to the ability to take information from one person and transfer it to another. There are trust issues involved, but humanity is naturally inclined to believe what it's told... as long as said humanity has no strongly held opinions that conflict with the subject at hand. Thus political screamy: strong opinions held. Thus the college football hype train: almost no data available. If Fiutak says it, it must be true.
These things are so deeply held to be true that we have cliches for all these things: better safe than sorry; make your first impression the best one; preaching to the choir.

Put those three tendencies together: we leap to conclusions based on little information. We don't change our minds easily. We are inclined to believe information passed to us, especially if it reinforces our previously held beliefs. The result is that when people are exposed to something new, highly unusual, and memorable it's nearly impossible to dislodge that impression no matter how much evidence to the contrary exists. And then these people communicate that impression to everyone around them as part of their desire to be seen as knowledgeable, those people repeat it to others, the first people have their ideas reinforced by others repeating what they said to others like a giant game of telephone, and the dreaded CONVENTIONAL WISDOM calcifies around the topic at hand, obscuring whatever the real situation is.

The end result is that one high-profile event colors all resultant thoughts regarding that topic because of the associative nature of memory. Shazor is the guy who disemboweled Dorien Bryant; he's a game changer, a playmaker, a safety with the rare ability to impact the game. No matter that Michigan gave up huge plays all year because its safeties were woefully unsafe. Pat Massey let Vince Young impossibly escape from a sure sack that probably would have won Michigan the Rose Bowl; he's a douchetard. No matter that he had 37 tackles and 5 sacks from the DE spot in a 3-4, was honorable mention All Big Ten, and was part of a very stout interior run defense.

And Troy Smith... well, let's look at Troy Smith. He detonated against Michigan. This (stolen from the upcoming Buckeye preview) is what happened against everyone else:
  • Indiana: (Sucks.) Smith completes 12-24 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Also rushes for 53 yards. Ohio State wins 30-7.
  • Penn State: Ohio State attempts a total of eight passes. They gain 202 yards and win 21-10 by returning a punt and interception for touchdowns and getting a 35 yard touchdown drive after a long kickoff return.
  • Michigan State: Against one of the worst defenses in the country, Smith goes 13-21 for 138 yards, 58 of which came on a slant where MSU's very special secondary blew the angle on Ginn. His other 20 attempts netted 80 yards. OSU scored on a 17 yard Ginn reverse after a Damon Dowdell interception, a Ginn punt return, a 19-yard drive to get a 53-yard Nugent field goal, the Ginn slant, and a long touchdown run trying to run out the clock.
  • Purdue: Smith completes less than 50% of his passes and throws three second-half interceptions. OSU loses 24-17, though Smith does lead two moderately long touchdown drives.
  • Oklahoma State: Watches from bench.
You can make the case that Troy Smith was a net benefit against exactly two teams: Indiana, which is such an outlier in terms of team quality that it has absolutely no bearing on reality, and Michigan. In all other games he was somewhere between wretched and zombie death. Six months later, perception and momentum result in this idiocy from Bowden:
Quarterback Troy Smith's ability to run and throw accurately led the Buckeyes to three victories in their last four regular-season games, pumping new life into a stagnant Buckeye offense.
None of these things about Shazor, Massey, or Smith are true, but because it's really easy to see the technicolor iceberg tip that juts out of the sea of noise that is our modern, information-flooded world, people take the one piece of obvious information they have and extrapolate the hell out of it. Good for not getting eaten. Not good for college football analysis. Something that is indicated by one play or one game out of hundreds or dozens becomes the tiger tail, and we materialize the rest of the tiger out of thin air. Then when Tony proves himself to be paper indeed we marvel at the unpredictability of college football when we should be marvelling at the predictability of human nature.