Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Challenge of Being Preseason Number One

Mark Schlabach of ESPN points out that the team that is ranked #1 in the preseason poll usually doesn't win the national championship.

The only exception in recent years has been Southern California in 2004 — and USC, as we all learned, had to cheat to do it.

It wasn't always that way. In the 1970s, as I recall, the preseason polls frequently were right — but not always. I had my own experience with that. I grew up in Arkansas, as I have said here before, and the Razorbacks shocked just about everyone in Lou Holtz's first year at the helm, going 10–1 in the regular season and thrashing heavily favored Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, 31–6. They finished #3 in the nation.

That definitely made some people sit up and take notice. The next year, 1978, the Razorbacks were ranked #1 when the season began, but they stumbled early and never lived up to the hype.

That might not happen with this year's top–ranked preseason squad, Oklahoma. The Sooners were 12–2 last year and won 80% of their games against ranked teams. They have appeared in more than one–third of the last 11 national championship games.

They could live up to the hype.

If they do, though, they will be tested. Four of the games on their schedule are against teams currently ranked in the preseason Top 25 — Florida State, Missouri, Texas &M and Oklahoma State — and who knows what will happen with the University of Texas before the Longhorns and the Sooners square off in their traditional October brawl?

Personally, I'm not convinced that the Sooners will win it all.

Perhaps it is my bias for the Southeastern Conference — which is, I believe, justified by the fact that the SEC champion has won the national championship for the last five years — but I believe the SEC's champion will play for the national title again.

I am not sold, however, on the idea that it will be either Alabama or LSU, both of whom are in the preseason Top 5.

Alabama, of course, won it all year before last — but the Crimson Tide has lost its Heisman Trophy–winning running back and its starting quarterback — and you don't just replace talent like that. Alabama is good but overrated and may struggle with a schedule that has five foes who are in the preseason Top 25 and at least two others who might find themselves in the Top 25 before September is over.

LSU is also talented, but its schedule is, if anything, tougher. The Tigers open the season against #3 Oregon, then must face five Top 25 opponents — and that could be six if Tennessee upsets Florida on Sept. 17.

Actually, the rap on the SEC is that there are so many good teams every year — which is true — that whoever wins it all is likely to have been eliminated from national championship consideration because it lost one or two nailbiters to equally talented SEC rivals.

But that, however, has not been true. If it had, SEC teams would not have won five straight national titles. Someone always emerges from the pack. Sometimes it is the team that was expected to excel, and sometimes it is a surprise, but someone always gets the early momentum and most of the breaks.

That will end eventually — as everything does. But not yet. And perhaps not this season.

And my sincere guess is that it could be any one of maybe half a dozen SEC teams. Four different schools have won SEC and national championships in the last five years. One of those four could win it all again — or Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, even Mississippi State could rise to the top.

All eyes will be on Oklahoma on the first weekend of the season, but the smart money will keep an eye on the SEC.

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