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How Bracket Predictions Explain the Alabama Football Dynasty

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Narrative

We're all saying the same thing, BAYBEE!!!
We're all saying the same thing, BAYBEE!!!

It's no mystery how Sports Narratives get started. Someone at Bristol says it, another guy (and let's face it, it's almost always a guy) repeats it, and then another guy blogs about it. Pretty soon, we're all talking about the same exact thing in the same exact way. Some point to this as proof of some sports conspiracy, but I actually think it's far more benign than this. Something gets pushed through the sports echo machine, and then all you hear is the echo.

Look, I don't think there is a sports team on the planet that has benefited more from the Official Media Narrative than Alabama football. Part of that is because college football is the only sport that uses the media echo machine as part of its mechanism for choosing its champion, which is nothing short of insane.

But Alabama has won two consecutive titles partly because the media broadcast their story the loudest. You could go back in time and not change a single on-field event but just slightly change the narrative, and Alabama would not have played in either title game. That's not to say their titles don't count or any other such nonsense, but it is pretty infuriating to anyone not wearing red and white.

This frustration has lead to the running joke on LSU message boards that "ESPN hates LSU." Like there's a boardroom of people in Bristol plotting on ways to screw over the Tigers while promoting Alabama. This, of course, is ridiculous. They probably meet over coffee. No, just kidding. This is to say that the ESPN Media Conspiracy is largely an accident.

We can tell it is an accident because we can see how they are behaving before the basketball tournament. Now, if you're reading this, you are likely an LSU fan and likely aren't familiar with this "basketball" sport unless you remember the days of Dale Brown. But for you younger folk, basketball is this sport that schools play between football and baseball seasons. Kentucky is usually pretty good at it, which is why we don't take it seriously.

Now, I don't watch as much basketball as I used to, mainly because every team I root for was just good enough to be depressing. My alma mater, LSU, was an NIT bubble team, which I don't even want to talk about. My law school, Baylor, spent the entire year finding new and exciting ways to squander talent. And my childhood team, Maryland, demonstrated that if Alex Len is a lottery pick, the NBA has some serious talent evaluation issues. But for everyone else, this was a really exciting year which was wide open. The #1 team seemed to change every week, and it set the stage for the Most Exciting Tourney Ever.

Since the brackets have come out, ESPN has been analyzing them pretty much nonstop. Seriously, if you turn on ESPNU right now, there is probably a former coach breaking down Kansas State's defense or something. ESPN employs approximately five hundred analysts, and they have 24 hours of programming to kill across four networks, so they live for this time of year. They get to talk about sports without there being any actual sports.

Now, ESPN doesn't carry the tournament and their talking heads have precisely no impact on who will actually win, so they have no incentive to push any team or any one agenda. Their experts are given free rein to pick whoever they want, and are probably encouraged to make some different picks in order to set up conflict on their screaming head shows. ESPN has published the "Expert Picks" of thirteen of its analysts on their website. And without any incentive to push one team's narrative, they all pretty much push one team's narrative.

11 of 13 picked Louisville to win the Midwest (2 picked Michigan St)
9 of 13 picked Ohio St to win the West (3 picked Gonzaga, 1 New Mexico)
9 of 13 picked Indiana to win the East (4 picked Miami)

So in the most wide-open, unpredictable tournament in years, with no incentive to just push one team, and a deep field of contenders... in three of the four regions, the Experts picked the same teams. ESPN experts only selected a total of seven different teams for those three Final Four slots. That's almost no variations in their picks whatsoever. Heck, 6 of them, nearly half, picked Louisville, Ohio St, AND Indiana to make the Final Four.

Now, they might be right. But it's shocking that in a field that is supposed to be so wide open and unpredictable, ESPN still finds itself pushing a narrative. It's not intentional, I highly doubt they were copying off each other's paper or had some executive memo telling them to pick Indiana. It's just that the Media Noise Machine eventually starts saying the same thing.

This isn't to pick on ESPN either. Sports Illustrated did the same thing, only with only five experts. All five chose Louisville, four picked Ohio St, and four chose Miami instead of Indiana. Only six schools were mentioned for the three slots, and three of five writers picked the Louisville, Ohio St, Miami troika in their Final four.

You'll note I left out the South, because there is actually disagreement there that we would expect. Only 4 of 13 experts took the plurality choice, Florida. Kansas and VCU each got 3 votes, Georgetown 2, and Michigan 1. Five different schools received votes and not one got a majority. That's what we would expect the other regions to look like, but really, it is reflecting a narrative in reverse: Kansas are a bunch of choking dogs.

Sports talking heads are a timid bunch, and the worst kind of front-runners. Okay, Ohio St isn't a one seed, but what are they going to do? Back a mid major? Gonzaga's not a blue blood, thus not worthy of overwhelming support like the other 1-seeds. Kansas has the narrative of "tourney choker" (as does the 2-seed, Georgetown), so the Echo Machine lines up to say Kansas will choke.

I mean, look at how VCU is getting so much support. They missed the actual VCU story, so now the experts are going to tell me how great they are a few years too late. Meanwhile, St. Louis won the A-10, not VCU, and beat VCU head to head. Let's see who picked St. Louis to make the Final Four? Yeah, that would be nobody.

ESPN doesn't hate LSU, they just love narratives. They love them so much, they spout them unconsciously. In basketball, it doesn't really matter. In football, it means we have to watch red and white confetti fall from the ceiling. There is no pro-Alabama conspiracy in the media, it just seems that way. There doesn't need to be one, as they have the Narrative.