College Football: Week 1 and the Conundrum of Preseason Polls

After week 1 of the college football season, there’s always plenty to talk about. Coupling the fact that the NFL hasn’t started yet and that some meaningful teams actually play other teams that matter to open their season instead of the usual powderpuffs, there’s plenty of reason to get excited.

And the first slew of games did not dissappoint. Florida State upset Ole Miss with a furious second-half comeback, while Texas beat Notre Dame in an overtime shootout. The real storyline was how much shakeup was inevitable, seeing as seven SEC teams lost on opening weekend. This included four teams in the top 10 (Oklahoma and LSU along with the aforementioned) taking L’s. For what it’s worth Oklahoma lost to a very good Houston team who is now in the driver’s seat to a playoff game, while Greg Ward Jr. will surely be a darkhorse Heisman candidate.

While everyone gets all bent out of shape over the polls shuffling, what they should really be doing is just shaking their head. Was the SEC grossly overrated this year? It certainly would seem like it, as Appalachian State took Tennessee to overtime in one of the “wins”. While a number of these teams may have been overrated, surely contributed to by their vast overexposure in the media, it’s not so much the teams that are the problem. SEC teams get the most heralded (5-star) recruits. They have far and away the most depth, and the recent string of national champions to show for it (Ohio State and FSU notwithstanding).

No, the real problem is that there are preseason polls to begin with. A 6-loss Washington Huskies team opening the season #14 in the country is only the tip of the iceberg in this horribly inexact science. What the polls essentially say when a team like that opens so high is “They weren’t good last year, but we think we know that they’re going to be really good this year.” Which wouldn’t hurt if we were talking about fantasy football, but we aren’t. In college football preseason polls matter, and are a reason why an undefeated team (2004 Auburn) could get left out of the national championship. Where you start the season grossly affects where you end it, and if you don’t start the season ranked, even if it’s “your season” you’re not making it in. The now-defunct BCS helps to prevent that possibility, but it’s still there. If you start a season unranked and don’t play in the SEC? No chance, even if you run the table.

Which brings me back to week 1. In a system that seems to replicate glaring mistakes that go unrecognized, I can’t help but notice the past repeating itself. Let’s start with the past. One reprehensible example etched in my mind is from the 2012 season. The USC Trojans were the fashionable pick that year. Preseason number 1, led by Matt Barkley, the media sold it as “USC is back.” As in, back from forgettable seasons and back to being national powers when names like Leinart, Palmer, and Bush echoed over the P.A. system.  The only problem with that was that USC fell to Georgia Tech 21-7 in the Sun Bowl. Yes, you read that correctly. A preseason number 1 finishing a season 7-6.

If you thought that was the only hilarious botched pick ,you’d be wrong. Done in reverse fashion, a six-loss Notre Dame team started their 2008 campaign ranked #23. This is where the polls become harder to defend. I understand that you don’t have much to go off when making preseason polls. Players declare for drafts, get injured, suspended, and sometimes sanctions rain down on a program. I’m also not in love with rewarding teams simply because they had a good season the year prior. Try picking a fantasy team that way; you’ll be sorely disappointed. However, this is the system we’re stuck with, so it’s better than the alternative. Enter USC again and you see how the cycle can be repeated. “Oh, we were wrong on them last year. But how dumb would we look if we didn’t rank them this year because of that? How long is a program like that really going to be bad for?” This is where the bias and benefit-of-the-doubt rationale gives so aptly-named Power 5 schools an unneccesary leg up on the cinderella who went 11-1 and beat FSU in the Peach Bowl. “Oh, Houston? That was a great story but it’ll never happen again.”

Luckily, Houston didn’t get disparage against and was ranked even before they upset Oklahoma. The whole term “upset” this early in the year is hyperbole. Does anyone know who’s good and who isn’t? Clearly not or we wouldn’t end up with USC’s, but we do. Every year there’s a top 10 and even top 5 team that falls out of the top 25. But here’s where it gets tricky. Take Notre Dame’s week 1 matchup with Texas for example. Texas tops Notre Dame 50-47 with a true freshman quarterback (Shane Buechele) who looks to be their savior. Tyrone Swoopes scores crucial touchdowns (including the winning one) as a run-only quarterback. The media’s response? A declaration. Texas is back. And the polls signified that. Texas opened week two in the top 10. Wait what? Weren’t they unranked to open the season? Why yes, they were. So they jumped over 15 spots, depending on how far out of the top 25 they were? Yes, they did.

As much as I may love to bash Notre Dame, they are a huge part of the name recognition problem. Last year, they were 10-3. Not bad. Opening number 10? A little high but I can live with it. By far the biggest blow to any team who had their biggest chance to move up in the polls in week 1 by virtue of a big win is a gross undertaking like this. An assumption that by beating a tenth-ranked team week 1 that said team is worth of a number ten ranking themselves. Haven’t we learned over and over again that the transitive property doesn’t work in college football or sports, or even life, for that matter?  Everything has to be viewed on an individual basis. Notre Dame isn’t a top 10 team, so maybe Texas is. And worse yet, it used to be that to jump to number 10 as an unranked team you’d have to beat  a highly ranked one by fifty. They won in OT on a field goal, let’s calm ourselves. The thought that people in the media don’t sit down and think for a second “Maybe neither of these teams are any good.” And what is there to compare them to? They haven’t played anyone other than each other.

Notre Dame may not lose six games. Maybe Texas doesn’t either. But then again, maybe they do. The reason the problem is so pronounced is that it doesn’t matter how many games you win, or more importantly who you beat. Simply put, it just matters when. Whoever beat that USC team when they opened the season number 1? They got a hell of a bump, you better believe. To make matters irreparably worse, there’s no correction process. If you have a really good year financially and bring in more cash for your family, you’re taxed more. But college football doesn’t audit. If you beat a number 1 team in week 1 and they lose six games, your ranking doesn’t get adjusted negatively at the end of the year; there’s no counter-balancing, no righting of wrongs.

How can the best teams be given the best bowl opportunities, and more importantly, the best chance to make a playoff, if they’re never given a fair shot? What happens to the team who beats an unranked SEC opponent to start the year that finishes in the top 10? The SEC is especially volatile seeing how every team is ranked very high. Take last year’s Florida. Unranked to start the year, two big wins and they’re in the top 10.

Preventing schools not in the Power 5 conferences from this prestige/tradition prejudice will never be easy. But there’s a way to start. Take away preseason polls entirely and only rank after you’ve seen every team compete. This year’s version. At the end of the year, along with final rankings, do a separate final ranking accounting for how the team’s schedule really went. Did they play five ranked opponents at year’s end or just when they played them?

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