Preseason Polls: Necessary, yet Evil
Preseason Football Top 25 Rankings
Every year, there’s a lot of whining and complaining when the top 25 rankings come out. Some people are unhappy that their team is ranked too low while others are upset that a rival is ranked ahead of them. In an era where everything is focused on the National Championship, many fans believe that a team’s starting point is critical to their chance at playing for the Crystal Trophy. In fact, you even hear people suggesting to do away with preseason polls completely!
That’s a little heavy-handed because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with preseason polls. Fans love to see where their team is projected to start the year and it stirs up plenty of discussion for the talking heads on ESPN (and in the world of sports radio). In a perfect world, people would take these polls at face value for what they are: Somebody’s guess at the country’s top teams before a single down of football is played.
You see, the problem isn’t the polls, it’s the pollsters. Far too many voters put out a preseason poll and then refuse to budge on their order unless they’re absolutely forced to, especially if a team they ranked really high is clinging to an unbeaten record. That’s why everyone is all up in arms about Boise State’s rank, which is as high as #3 in some places: The Broncos have a good shot to go unbeaten with a de facto two game schedule and fans of every team other than Alabama and Ohio State are afraid that their squad will get left out!
Furthermore, it seems like everyone uses a different criteria when they’re putting their top 25 together. Some writers like to give teams credit for what they did last season. Hence, that’s why Alabama is #1 in most polls despite only returning one starter on defense. Other pollsters like to project how the new season will end up looking, so that they can point back and brag about how accurate they were in August. A great example would be Boise State’s high rank, because they’re a stone cold lock to win at least ten games. Finally, you see a lot of people rank teams based upon the proverbial ‘neutral field’ discussion, which relies upon a subjective evaluation of one team’s talent and comparing it to another and establishing your order in that manner. The perfect example of this would be the Florida State Seminoles, who seem to keep showing up in many top 10s around the country thanks to their highly regarded talent, but are coming off of a 7-6 season.
All of these ideas have their positives and negatives, so I’m going to combine the three to create my top 25. The most important factor is going to be proven returning talent, which will emphasize teams that have most of their core players returning from strong 2009 seasons. I want players who have shown the ability to produce on the field and the more your team has, the higher I’ll rank them. The next most important factor will be recent success. A team heavy on talent but light on experience that has been a consistent winner, like Florida or Texas, will get more credit than a team with a ton of talent that has never been a part of a championship team, like Florida State or Miami.
Finally, you’ll notice that I don’t factor in my projections for success. That’s because there’s already enough uncertainty heading into the fall: Most of these teams have changed over 20 percent or more of their rosters since last season, so any top 25 or season preview is nothing more than an educated guess. I’m also only going to go with this amalgamated version of a top 25 until the end of September. Once we’ve seen most colleges play four games, I’m going to completely blow my rankings up and list teams based solely upon their on-field results, not upon my own subjective August expectations. For example, if a team starts 4-0 thanks to a weak schedule, they’re not going to make the list. But if a team starts 3-1 or even 2-2 but faces a really tough September, they’ll get respect for big wins and a strong schedule. I call it rewarding teams for playing (and defeating) top-tier competition and letting their results speak for themselves.
And that’s what every single pollster in the country should do.
With that set criteria in mind, let’s look at Bax’s Preseason Top 25!
1) Ohio State Buckeyes
No major contender in the entire country has fewer question marks than Ohio State. The Buckeyes return sixteen starters from a team that won eleven games last fall, including Heisman Trophy candidate Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. OSU should also have shed any big-game doubts with victories over Iowa to clinch the Big Ten and Oregon in the Rose Bowl, both of whom were ranked in the top ten. The Bucks are a worthy pick to begin the season atop the rankings.
2) Oklahoma Sooners
Many fans aren’t paying as much attention to the Sooners as usual, thanks to a tough 8-5 campaign last fall. However, this team was decimated by key injuries and used that season to break in new QB Landry Jones. Their ‘down’ year still included an offense that scored 31 points per game! With so much talent returning from last season’s learning experience, the Sooners could be a major presence on the national scene this fall. Oklahoma is loaded in the trenches and primed for a major bounce back campaign.
3) Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa was the little team that could last year. Most people doubted them as they opened up the season 9-0 thanks to an under producing and turnover-prone offense, but the Hawkeyes soundly defeated ACC Champion Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Now this veteran team returns with the promise of a much stronger offense (they had no proven runners going into ’09) and their defense will be vicious thanks to the country’s best D-Line, led by future 1st round pick Adrian Clayborn. Last season, Iowa didn’t win eleven games because of their offense, they won eleven games in spite of it! Expect QB Ricky Stanzi to avoid putting his team into early holes this year and the Hawks are a major contender.
4) Alabama Crimson Tide
I know I decried Bama’s lack of experience on defense earlier, but their offense is going to be absolutely loaded. They bring back virtually everybody from last season’s championship attack, so they’ll certainly still one of the toughest teams in the country. But they’re so inexperienced on defense and could be without top lineman Marcel Dareus for an extended time period due to an agent scandal, so I simply can’t rank them any higher when we only know what they have on one side of the fooball.
5) Nebraska Cornhuskers
Surprised to see this team ranked so highly after losing lineman Ndamakung Suh? While he powered the N-Dominant defense that resulted in Nebraska’s first ten win campaign since 2003, Suh certainly wasn’t alone in his excellence last fall. Expect Jared Crick, a future 1st rounder in his own right, to anchor another excellent defensive line and the Huskers should have one of the country’s best defenses. Combine that will a powerful running game and this team could remind a lot of people of Alabama’s championship squad from last season. The only major question mark: Can QB Zac Lee provide solid balance on offense while protecting the football?
6) Arkansas Razorbacks
I’m pretty sure I have the Razorbacks ranked the highest of anyone outside of Fayetteville in the entire country, but I really think that this is a loaded team. Ten starters are back on offense, led by star quarterback Ryan Mallet. Simply put, he’s far and away the best passer in the SEC and his team’s aerial assault will be difficult to stop. Remember, Bobby Petrino is no slouch at the college level: He did lead Louisville to 41 wins in four seasons at the helm. With an improved defense and a really encouraging stretch run in ’09, I think that Arkansas is in for a huge 2010 season.
7) Wisconsin Badgers
If it weren’t for a lack of depth at defensive tackle, this team would be ranked much higher. The Badgers have one of the country’s most balanced offenses as they return virtually everybody from a unit that was one of only six teams in the country to average more than 200 yards running and passing per game last season. With a solid back seven, Wisconsin will be tough to beat if their D-Line can step up in the run-heavy Big Ten. This team has quietly put together a really strong run in the last six years, averaging 9.5 wins per year and finishing ranked five times, so don’t underestimate them.
8) Oregon Ducks
The Ducks are another team that has one glaring flaw holding them back from a higher rank. That would be the absence of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was thrown off the team for robbing a frat house in the spring. Oregon has been blessed by the presences of Masoli and Dennis Dixon running the offense since Head Coach Chip Kelly arrived three years ago as the offensive coordinator and it won’t be easy to replace their excellent production. But the Ducks still have eighteen returning starters from the team that won the Pac Ten and went the Rose Bowl, so they’ll be a serious force to be reckoned with.
9) Virginia Tech Hokies
The first entrant from the ACC boasts one of the country’s most dangerous tailback tandems. Sophomores Ryan Williams and Darren Evans are both former 1,000 yard rushers and will play together for the first time as Evans missed the ’09 season with an ACL injury. Factor in mobile senior QB Tyrod Taylor, and the Hokies have everything in place to pound the football. While they have to replace a lot of stout defenders, Tech always reloads on ‘D’ and should continue that trend as long as renowned defensive coordinator Bud Foster is there. The Hokies are the favorites to win the ACC this fall and if they open up with a victory over Boise State, an 8-0 start is a strong possibility.
10) Florida Gators
I’ve read a lot of articles this preseason about Florida’s ability to reload and I’m certainly not doubting their talent level. However, believing that the Gators can seamlessly transition from Tim Tebow to new starter John Brantley under center is nothing short of absurd. Love him or hate him, Tebow was one of the greatest players in the history of college football: You don’t simply plug another guy in his place without a) growing pains and b) a step back in productivity. Combine that with massive losses to the NFL on both sides of the football and you’ve got a team that could lose multiple games for the first time since 2007. The Gators are going to be favored to win their 3rd consecutive SEC East Championship but it will be much more of a dogfight this season.
11) Texas Longhorns
Texas is in a very similar position to Florida: Everyone knows that they’re absolutely loaded with talent and they have a few very bright spots, including one of the nation’s elite defensive backfields. However, as good as Garrett Gilbert will probably turn out to be, people seem to think that a gutsy relief showing in last year’s National Championship Game is a sign that the Longhorns aren’t going to miss a step in 2010. That’s simply silly: A sophomore making his first career start isn’t going to simply replace the NCAA’s all-time leader in wins, Colt McCoy. This is a young and gifted squad but they’re a notch behind Oklahoma and Nebraska in the Big XII this season.
12) Florida State Seminoles
Air Raid Alert: Florida State’s passing game is going to drop bombs against every opponent they face this season. Piloted by Heisman candidate Christian Ponder, the Seminoles are going to be one of the country’s most effective offenses. However, I could also have said that about the ’09 attack and they only won seven games! The real reason that I’m so high on the ‘Noles this fall is the expected major leap forward on defense. New DC Mark Stoops is highly regarded and he has a ton of talent to work with. Expect FSU to improve across the board this season and they’re generally favored to make their first appearance in the ACC Championship Game since 2005.
13) Boise State Broncos
This is undoubtedly going to be the most controversial team on this list. Yes, I’m fully aware that the Broncos are coming off of an undefeated season that culminated with a BCS Bowl victory. Yes, I’m fully aware that they return a whopping 20 starters. And yes, I’m fully aware that this is a team that has won two BCS Bowl games to cap off unbeaten campaigns twice in the last four years.
Now let me ask you some questions: Are you aware that Boise State has a 4-4 record against BCS conference opponents in the last five years? Are you aware that the Broncos are only 4-5 against ranked teams during that time period? Finally, have you looked at Boise State’s record in the last decade? They’re 73-4 against WAC opponents but only boast a 39-13 record against non-WAC foes. When you factor in a schedule that has included only one BCS conference opponent in each of the last three seasons, it’s difficult to not wonder if we’re looking at a very good team that gets fat off of a weak schedule.
Luckily, the 2010 season will be a serious proving ground for the Broncos. They play top 10 Virginia Tech on Labor Day in Washington D.C. and if they can beat the ACC favorites, it will be a significant boost to their BCS hopes. They also host a quality Oregon State team in late September that is a legitimate contender in the wide open Pac Ten. They also have a difficult conference game for the first time since 2007 as WAC rival Nevada will be a stern test: Their last visit to Reno in 2008 was a 42-35 nailbiter and the Wolfpack has since improved by leaps and bounds. This is easily Boise State’s most difficult schedule since 2005. One note about the 2005 campaign: It was the last time that they left the Pacific Northwest to play a BCS conference opponent and Boise State lost at Georgia by five touchdowns. One other relevant comparison to the ’05 season and its relatively tough schedule: The Broncos finished with a 9-4 record. With all of that in mind, it will be interesting to see how BSU fares this fall.
14) Miami Hurricanes
It seems like every preseason brings back the same tiresome question: “Is Da U finally back?” While ‘back’ is a silly term (what, did they go fishing for four years before that), Miami won nine games with a difficult schedule in ’09 and is widely considered a major contender in the ACC. The last two seasons have seen a preponderance of young players on the field and that should pay off this year as the Canes have a talented core that is coming into their college prime. However, this still isn’t a complete team. The defensive backs are a big question mark beyond All-American corner Brandon Harris and their O-Line is a major concern. On top of those worries, Miami plays a brutal schedule. However, QB Jacory Harris and a physically imposing fleet of receivers should score plenty of points this year and the Miami D-Line is one of the country’s best.
15) Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia went through a tough 2009 season and their 8-5 record was the worst in Mark Richt’s nine seasons. However, he made some major changes on the defensive coaching staff and a switch to the 3-4 defense could spark the Bulldogs to a much better defensive showing. But the real reason for optimism is a loaded offense that returns ten starters. Yes, redshirt frosh QB Aaron Murray is the only unproven part, but he’ll be playing behind the country’s best O-Line, will benefit from two strong runners in Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, and will be throwing to (for my money) the best wide receiver in the country in A.J. Green. Do not sleep on this team because Georgia is a legitimate contender in the SEC East.
16) TCU Horned Frogs
The other half of the BCS Buster Bowl against Boise State in ’09 (known formerly as the Fiesta Bowl), the Horned Frogs are the overwhelming favorites in the Mountain West. TCU returns nine starters from their prolific offense and their defense is always extremely tough. With senior QB Andy Dalton, the 2009 MWC Offensive Player of the Year, leading the way, the Horned Frogs are a legitimate BCS Bowl candidate for the 2nd consecutive year. With a schedule the features Oregon State and Baylor in the first three weeks, we’ll have a good handle on TCU early in the year.
17) Stanford Cardinal
For all of the publicity surrounding Stanford as a program on the rise, I’ve yet to see a top 25 that actually includes the Cardinal. Now, I know that people are thinking that they’re going to take a step back offensively with the loss of Heisman runner up Toby Gerhart, who rushed for 1,870 yards last year. But Stanford still has eight starters back on offense, led by star QB Andrew Luck, who already has been receiving buzz as a future high NFL draft pick. Furthermore, Stanford won eight games in ’09 despite the fact that they had one of the worst defenses in the Pac Ten. In the most underreported story of the year, the Cardinal defense looks to be much improved this fall and that could be the key to a run at the conference championship. Keep a very close eye on Stanford this season.
18) Pitt Panthers
After a rocky start by the Wannstache in the ‘Burgh, Pitt has quietly won 19 games in the last two seasons. In fact, the Panthers are 20-7 since their monumental upset of archrival West Virginia in 2007 that denied the Mountaineers a bid to the National Championship Game. This fall, Pitt has a ton of weapons returning on offense, most notably star tailback Dion Lewis and freakish receiver Jon Baldwin. Expect another pounding offensive showing from the Big East’s most gifted team to pair with an always-physical defense. The Panthers should be considered the favorite to win the conference championship.
19) Texas A&M Aggies
If this were a list of top 25 offenses, Texas A&M would merit serious consideration in the top five. Senior quarterback Jerrod Johnson accounted for 38 touchdowns and 4,000 total yards last fall as A&M scored 33 points per game. He brings back almost every single weapon from an extremely balanced offense and the Aggies look primed for a season of blowing up scoreboards. That said, A&M only won six games last year thanks to a terrible defensive showing and there’s no question that they have to improve to live up to this ranking. The good news is that there was a change at defensive coordinator and the Aggs are now playing a 3-4 defense that should play to their strengths. It is also a much more experienced unit and I’m confident that A&M will improve enough on defense to give the Big XII’s elite a run for their money this fall.
20) USC Trojans
Yeah, they’re not eligible for a bowl game or the BCS this season, but I’m not going to leave them out of the top 25 when they deserve to be ranked. After all, USC’s five star recruits aren’t suddenly less talented simply because the program was sanctioned. Let’s look at facts: USC has the best defense in the Pac Ten that is anchored by a loaded front seven. The Trojans have one of the country’s most talented young quarterbacks running the offense and they’re going to score plenty of points. While their O-Line and defensive backfields are a bit concerning, especially due to a lack of depth, there’s no way that this isn’t one of the country’s 25 best teams entering the season. Expect the Trojans to make a serious run at regaining the Pac Ten Championship that they defended for seven years until Oregon finally dethroned them last fall.
21) Penn State Nittany Lions
In my mind, Penn State is one of the country’s elite programs. In the last five years, the Nittany Lions have a 51-13 record and have won at least nine games in each of those seasons. Furthermore, they’re 4-1 in bowl games and finished ranked after each campaign. The Nits have consistently fielded one of the country’s toughest defenses and that shouldn’t change this fall, though they do have to replace the loss of three NFL draft picks at linebacker. On offense, PSU should have a very strong running game behind senior Evan Royster, the O-Line has come together in camp and the starting wide receivers are a very talented tandem that combined for 94 catches and 13 touchdowns in ’09.
There’s just one problem: Penn State does not have an upperclassman or a player with more than eleven career pass attempts on the roster! In fact, true freshman Robert Bolden is the favorite to start for JoePa this fall. While that much inexperience would be a worry with any schedule, The Nits have the daunting task of being the first team in NCAA history to play three away games at teams who won BCS Bowls in the previous season as they travel to Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State this year. Despite a very talented overall roster, Penn State’s streak of nine win seasons is in jeopardy thanks to their quarterback issues.
22) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
The defending ACC Champions are going to be a contender again this season. However, their offense will be handcuffed by the loss of 1 st round pick Demaryius Thomas, whose 46 catches and 8 receiving touchdowns were the vast majority of the team’s passing game. Expect an offensive attack similar to the 2008 campaign, which will feature less passing and more carries for the ‘A-Backs’ (the guys who come in motion behind the set before the snap). The other major note entering the fall is the defense’s transition to a 3-4 set under the tutelage of former Virginia Head Coach Al Groh. Tech only finished 6 th in the ACC in scoring defense last year, so they will need to improve on ‘D’ to have a fighting chance to defend their title while playing in a stacked ACC Coastal Division.
23) Connecticut Huskies
I think that the collective response across the Southeast to this pick will be, ‘huh?’ After all, the Huskies have never finished a season ranked so it seems like a big stretch to pick them this high. However, UConn will be a very dangerous team this fall as they have eight returning starters on each side of the football from a team that ended the ’09 campaign with a dominating bowl victory over South Carolina (more on that in a second). In a conference that has a reputation as a finesse league, Connecticut has forged a separate identity as a team that will line up and punch defenses in the mouth, much like a Wisconsin or Virginia Tech. With a veteran team, the Huskies are a serious contender in the Big East and could burst into every top 25 with a season opening win at Michigan.
24) South Carolina Gamecocks
The Steve Spurrier era at South Carolina has been a disappointment. The script is the same every season: SC starts out with great promise with something like a 4-1 record before they lose a big game and then spiral to a six or seven win finish. What’s been particularly galling is Spurrier’s inability to mold an effective offense, something that was once his specialty. However, I’m still ranking South Carolina to start the season because this team is just loaded with talent, especially on defense. With a running game to give the offense some balance thanks to the arrival of 5 star freshman Marcus Lattimore, the Cocks could sneak up on Florida and Georgia and steal the SEC East.
25) Houston Cougars
The 3rd non-BCS Conference team in my top 25 is also the nation’s premiere passing offense. The Cougars are led by senior QB Case Keenum, who led the country in yards through the air last fall. Furthermore, he’ll be throwing to three different receivers who recorded more than 1,000 yards in 2009! And don’t make the mistake of dismissing Houston as a popgun offense in a non-BCS league that wilts against the big dogs: Houston beat Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State last season! If their defense can show some improvement, the Cougars are a darkhorse BCS bowl candidate and are the clear favorite in Conference USA.
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