A sure sign that the college football season is approaching is the release of USA Today's preseason poll.
That poll was released yesterday, and it ranks Oklahoma #1. USA Today's Jack Carey calls it a "salute ... to tradition," and I guess that is true.
There are aspects of the Top 10 that are very traditional. OU at #1, with Alabama #2, LSU #4, Florida State #5, Texas A&M #9 and Wisconsin #10, is reassuringly traditional.
But then there are the teams like Boise State (#7) and Oregon (#3), who have been major contenders in recent years but meant nothing when I was growing up. They were the schools that Oklahoma and Alabama would put on their schedules to pad their stats.
I only remember Stanford (ranked #6) being a factor in the national polls once when I was a child — and that was primarily due to the presence of the eventual Heisman Trophy winner on the roster.
And Oklahoma State (ranked #8) was nowhere when I was growing up.
So, while USA Today's preseason Top 10 does resemble the ones I remember from my formative years, it isn't exactly a flashback. Not completely. There are a few variations.
That's a good thing, I suppose. Every sport — team or individual — needs its standouts, the ones that are usually contenders for the championship. It encourages a sense of stability, of continuity.
The sense of drama is provided by those who emerge to challenge the establishment for the championship.
As I have mentioned here many times, I grew up in Arkansas and got my B.A. at the University of Arkansas. It's part of my DNÅ to fantasize about the Razorbacks playing for a national football title — and there have been times in my life when they have been contenders, but they've always fallen short.
As the 2011 season approaches, the rankings reflect a healthy respect for recent history. The Southeastern Conference, after all, has produced the last five national champions, and Oklahoma has played in four national championship games in the last 11 years — so it is reasonable to rank OU at the top and Alabama, a perennial contender long before the Crimson Tide won the national title year before last, just behind the Sooners.
Those two might very well end up facing each other for the national title in January.
But there are many challenges facing both schools before they can punch their tickets for the national title game.
In Oklahoma's conference, Texas is the only other school to win a national championship since the inception of the BCS, and Nebraska was the only other member of the conference to play for one (losing to Miami a decade ago).
Nebraska (#11 in USA Today's preseason poll) hightailed it to the Big Ten and, thus, won't stand in OU's way. But four other members of the conference could — Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, #21 Missouri and #24 Texas — as well as nonconference foe #5 Florida State.
Alabama probably faces an even stiffer challenge. Four of 'Bama's five divisional rivals in the SEC — LSU, #14 Arkansas, #19 Auburn and #20 Mississippi State — are in the Top 20. One of the three teams the Crimson Tide must face from the SEC's other division — Florida — is in the Top 25, and another (Tennessee) received some votes in the poll but not enough to be ranked.
Alabama also must face Penn State in the second week of the season, which figures to be an early test for both. If they are still as highly regarded in the polls at that time, the Nittany Lions should have something to prove when they play the Tide. They finished 7–6 last year but enter the 2011 campaign ranked 25th by USA Today.
Obviously, it is by no means certain that either team will play for the national title — but it might be a little easier for OU since the Big 12 won't be playing a conference championship game now.
No such luck in the SEC. The survivor of what figures to be an all–out battle between five talented teams (and one potential spoiler) in the SEC West will have to face the champion of the SEC East in a championship game, and the SEC East could produce Florida or Georgia or Tennessee (the schools that won all the division titles between 1992 and 2009) or possibly South Carolina, the school that won it last year.
Recent history suggests that the SEC champion will have an outstanding quarterback. Nine of the last 11 MVPs in the SEC's championship game were quarterbacks.
Recent history also suggests that the winner of the SEC West is not the team that won it the year before — or even the year before that. Four different schools have represented the SEC West in the championship game in the last five years. Arkansas was one of them, but the Razorbacks haven't been in the title game since 2006. They may be overdue.
Frankly, I think the Razorbacks might have been the favorites to win the SEC West this year if Ryan Mallett hadn't decided to skip his senior year. But he did, and now the Razorbacks will have to break in someone new.
In the past, that might be a big problem at other schools, but Arkansas was never overly dependent on its quarterback when I was growing up there. The offense was always centered around the running backs, and, if the quarterback could take the snap from center and hand off to the tailback without fumbling somewhere in between, he did his job satisfactorily.
Things are different now, though. Bobby Petrino, the current coach, is a devotee of the passing game, and a team definitely needs more than just a guy to take a snap and hand off the ball at quarterback when the passing game is as vital as it is in Petrino's playbook.
Mallett's replacement will have some growing pains as he works his way into the offense, but there are a lot of experienced players around him to ease the transition.
The Razorbacks could be the champions of the SEC West. They face Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy in their first three games, which should give the new quarterback a little time to get something of a handle on things.
Then Arkansas faces a back–to–back–to–back challenge — a trip to Alabama on Sept. 24, a date with Texas A&M here in north Texas on Oct. 1 and a home game with Auburn on Oct. 8. If the Hogs can get past those three, they will have a well–earned week off, followed by road games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Both schools have had their moments in the sun in the last decade, but recent history suggests they will struggle in 2011.
If the Hogs are unblemished at that point, they will take an 8–0 record into their home game with South Carolina, followed by home games against Tennessee and Mississippi State, who may or may not be ranked by that time. Then the Razorbacks wrap up their regular season with a post–Thanksgiving trip to Baton Rouge to play LSU — who also may or may not be in the rankings by that time.
Clearly, it's a tough schedule for the Razorbacks, as it always is. Success in the SEC depends as much on good fortune and lucky breaks as it does on talent, and, if Arkansas can avoid major injuries, the Hogs just might be playing for the SEC title — and perhaps the national title.
Well, I can dream, can't I?