College football boasts the richest traditions in sports.
The Ohio State marching band’s dotting of the “i,” Colorado’s romping buffalo Ralphie, the corps of cadets at West Point marching into Army’s Michie Stadium, the majestic USC Trojan horse Traveler...sometimes the rituals provide better entertainment than the games.
But there is one tradition – the preseason poll – that survives today only because it is, well, a tradition. It would be one thing if the preseason poll just dumbed us down, like the photo shoot of a prized free agent posing with his new team’s jersey, or the nonmonetary, senseless wager posed by mayors or governors before a rivalry contest.
Those are mere nuisances, disregarded with a shrug and a yawn. The preseason college football poll is more problematic. Based on nothing more tangible than last year’s record and how many key starters are returning, it sets the national championship race in motion, ensuring that a handful of powerhouse programs gain a head start while virtually eliminating everybody else from the discussion.
Adding to the madness is the fact that the preseason poll has a record of ineptitude rivaled only by the late Jeane Dixon. (She was the sham psychic who predicted Fidel Castro’s overthrow from Cuba in 1960. Not that it’d have mattered, as World War III, according to Dixon, was supposed to begin in 1958.)
The last national champion correctly appointed No. 1 before the season? That would be USC, six years ago, if you don’t count the asterisk: The NCAA, as punishment for Reggie Bush’s acceptance of improper benefits from stooges masquerading as marketing agents, recently forced the Trojans to forfeit their final two victories from 2004.
The last national champion to bring its preseason No. 1 ranking to fruition without an asterisk? Florida State in 1999. Before that it was Florida State in 1993. With two out of 10, the 1990s were a Golden Age of preseason polls. Associated Press voters were 0-for-the-decade during the 1960s and 1980s.
Put it this way: Since the first AP preseason poll, in 1949, voters have correctly forecast the national champion nine times. Think about that: Nine accurate guesses over 60 years.
Given that history of misses, it’s no wonder the AP doesn’t run a preseason poll anymore. Nor does it participate in the BCS, which now relies on a Harris Poll committee of coaches, administrators, media members and former players to supplement the USA Today coaches poll and six computer rankings. While the results of the first Harris Poll won’t be revealed until late September, the coaches still cling to tradition.
In a few weeks, long before any college football player has thrown a block or made a tackle, they’ll offer their idea of the top 25 teams in the land. Because they own a slice of the three-piece BCS pie, the coaches’ input in the national-championship formula is significant.
Last year, for instance, the coaches ranked Boise State No. 16 in the preseason poll. The Broncos responded with a perfect record, beating eventual Pacific-10 Conference champion Oregon in the opener and undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. But their national-championship aspirations were doomed in August, when they were slotted with the equivalent of a far-outside post position in the Kentucky Derby.
With 11 starters returning on offense and 10 starters on defense – riding the momentum of a No. 4 final ranking in 2009 – Boise State figures to be ranked among the top five in the coaches’ preseason poll. The non-conference schedule is aggressively upscale – Oregon State and Virginia Tech – and with Prosser’s brilliant Kellen Moore at quarterback, it’s possible the Heisman Trophy winner could come out of the state of Washington, and not be named Jake Locker.
The Broncos’ presumptive top 5 ranking in the USA Today poll makes sense, except I’ve got one quibble. They haven’t played a game. If it was wrong to put them 16th in the 2009 preseason poll, it is just as wrong to put them third or fourth in the 2010 preseason poll.
As for the front-runner this time around, it’s Alabama. Eight offensive starters are back for the Crimson Tide – including defending Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram – not to mention ’Bama’s inherent royalty: The past four national champions have represented the Southeastern Conference.
The notion of ranking teams before any teams gather for fall practice is a stupid nod to stubborn thinking, but at least it provides a precedent for a prediction.
The 2010 national champions of college football?
It won’t be Alabama.