Monday, August 31

College Football Previews: The Fate of #1

We know now that Cobra Commander is a fan of Three Dog Night and if there can be a parallel drawn to college football it is that 1 can be the loneliest number of all. Since the inception of the BCS in 1998, teams have been finding it tough to go wire to wire in the AP Poll. Many feel that it will not be the case with Florida this year for if the predictors do not have Florida winning it all, they have them in the title game. In this portion of our preview we take a look at the viability of preseason polls, the history of AP number 1 teams in the BCS, and why it is difficult in college football particularly to repeat.

Premature Rankings

We have yet to officially kick-off the 2009 college football season and yet we have a full AP and USA Today poll. It is the contention of a lot of critics that there should not be a poll coming out before any games are played or at the very least one that bears so heavily on the outcome of the season. Football is unique because the polls have a decided factor in whether a team gets an opportunity to play for the title. Some say the poll should not come out for a few weeks into the season but pollsters already have a general idea of where they would place the teams beforehand anyway. Yet the crux of the problem is thus; if team A starts the season based solely on expectations ahead of team B, then team A has the decided advantage if both finished with identical records and had similar losses. It is the constant case of finding imperfections with an imperfect system in college football. Sometimes a season can swing on where a coach's assistant or some crazed AP voter places a team.

Hard to Repeat

Besides any history of polls or playing the numbers game, it is extremely difficult to repeat in college football. It is difficult in any sport, but particularly in the college game. The most evident factor is the turnover. You only have players for a short period of time. If they are junior college transfers you have two years. If a player has NFL potential he is usually gone after his junior year. So from anywhere from 1-4 years the maximum amount of time you have to shape a player and utilize his talent on the field. And unless your Michigan you only have a certain amount of time to practice and train them due to NCAA rules.

What Florida has going for them is that their quarterback is returning, he knows the offense, and he is pretty darn good. The defense returns all of its starters so in theory they should be even better than last year. There were a few losses to the offensive line and Percy Harvin is gone as well. People are quick to point out that Jeffrey Demps is just as quick as Harvin but Percy had excellent lateral movement and field vision as well.

It takes more than returning talent to go wire to wire and repeat however. There is something about a team being ranked #1 in college sports that gives an extra charge to their opponents. Most of the time that charge only lasts one quarter or half and then the #1 team's talent takes over. The point is though that when you are a top-ranked team or the defending champion you get the absolute highest energy effort from the opposing team. Any time you step on the field the other squad has delusions of rushing the field and toppling the goal post.

I suppose mentioning that Florida plays in the SEC is enough to warrant doubts as to there repeat potential but as long as they make it to the SEC championship game with only won loss, they have nothing to worry about. It is one of the effects of the BCS system that a team has the knowledge it can make one mistake and still get the title shot while other teams know it is perfection or bust.

By the Numbers

Georgia came in ranked number 1 last year mostly based on their strong 2007 season and the return of Matt Stafford and Knowshon in their backfield. I was even pretty high on them. Yet at the end of the season they were ranked 13th. The last preseason number 1 to finish with the title since the inception of the BCS was USC in 2004. The Trojans were again the preseason number 1 the next year but if not for the scampering of Vince Young would have gone back-to-back wire-to-wire. USC again was ranked number 1 before the 2007 season but had to sit and watch the title game and ended up number 3. The only other BCS wire-to-wire team was Florida State in 1999. The average finish of the preseason number 1 in the BCS era is 3.63. Some of that is due to the AP choosing good teams and the other is that it is a lot harder to fall from the top, even with bad losses. Perhaps the voters like to cover their preseason picks at year's end even if the team is not playing for the championship.

Only three teams have ever come from double digit preseason rankings to win the title with the largest run made by Oklahoma in 2000. If we ever have a beer together and this subject comes up I can give you a detailed account of why the Sooners got the break of the century in getting to play FSU in the title game that year. The very BCS system was changed after that year because of what happened but I digress. The average starting spot for the BCS national champion has been 6.36. The team ranked 6th in the AP this year is Ohio State.

You cannot really crunch these numbers. There is no sure fire formula to go by when the AP and the other polls that comprise the BCS are created from subjective votes from what are basically anonymous voters. Worse yet, there is not standard set of criteria from which to vote. If you think that strength of schedule is all that matters, that is how you vote. Margin of victory may impress you, going undefeated might be the most important, or you just may not like a player or coach as much as another. Predicting how things will fall out is never easy in sports to begin with but this system makes it a true crap-shoot. We do know that history has taught us being number 1 before the first kickoff of the season usually results in being ranked lower at the end.

No comments: