January 22, 2009
Predicting the offseason consensus.
Tuesday, I looked at the unanimity at the top of the "early bird" polls, where Florida and Texas overwhelmingly dominated everyone's top two spots. Those same polls looked a lot alike in their favorites for "sleepers" and insurgents, too: Of the 10 ballots in that sample, all but one had either Ole Miss or Oklahoma State in its top-10, and that one -- Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun -- had the Rebels and Cowboys No. 11 and No. 12, respectively, which would be slightly higher than either school has finished in the final AP poll in any of their players' lifetimes (save the handful of vets who were infants when Barry Sanders-led OSU was 11th in 1987 and 1988; Ole Miss has not finished in the writers' top dozen since 1969).
Nationalistas Stewart Mandel and Matt Hayes rank Ole Miss in their top five; local guys Joe Person and Jon Wilner counter with Oklahoma State in their top four (Wilner places the Rebels fifth, as well). Again, for schools that have not cracked the year-end top-10 in many decades, and that fell just short of double-digit wins last year.
Ole Miss, I kind of get: The Rebels were the only team to beat an otherwise untouchable outfit from Florida, gave Alabama a real go at midseason and whipped LSU and Texas Tech late on national stages. They were 19 points in four games from being undefeated and down the stretch really looked like they could handle elite teams; it's significant that they actually did so twice. Including the rout in Baton Rouge, it's hard to argue "fluke."
I'm still very skeptical of any team that benefits so much from a November hot streak, which isn't much of a sample to completely ignore the losses to Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, much less the Dark Ages of the previous regime. Beyond Jevan Snead, the Rebels aren't bursting with elite talent on the anything like the order of LSU, Alabama or even Auburn, which despite its rapid descent is still about four months or so from considering the top 15 a virtual birthright. The key losses on the line (namely Michael Oher and Peria Jerry) and the overall talent level is still more of a fourth-place team than a first-place one.
But at least the enthusiasm for the Rebels is based on actual skins on the wall. Oklahoma State spent the second half of last year in the top-15 after upsetting Missouri on the road en route to a 7-0 start, and in fact was never ranked below Ole Miss in the mainstream polls until after the bowl game. For a team that's supposed to be on the verge of a breakthrough, though, OSU didn't beat anybody: Other than Mizzou -- which itself finished with all of two victories over BCS teams that ended with winning records their own selves, and none over a team in the final polls -- the Cowboys' "big" wins were Houston and Troy; in-conference, they beat Texas A&M, Baylor, Iowa State and Colorado, which combined to go 1-22 against Big 12 teams other than one another (the one win was Colorado's one-point victory over Kansas State, which fits snugly into the same underclass). For all its undeniable offensive firepower, OSU's bid to join the upper crust looks like a house of cards, short not only against the best in its own division, but then against the only other really competent outsider it faced, too, in Oregon, which took the Cowboys to school in the second half of the Holiday Bowl.
There is one trend that favors OSU's merits as an insurgent over the Rebels' since successful stints by Les Miles at Ok. State and David Cutcliffe at Ole Miss ended after the 2004 season:
On the left, Mike Gundy's path since a dismal debut in 2005 is encouraging; I trust trends more than single shots. Oklahoma State's steady climb is reminiscent of Texas Tech's, in very much the same context, with the same slow accumulation of talent across the board. I don't just mean that "Dez Bryant is awesome" (though he is), but that OSU has steadily improved its overall recruiting, just as Mike Leach has in Lubbock, and could plausibly be on the verge of a similar breakthrough with the pieces in place this year.
That is, Oklahoma State has built its hype one step at a time; Ole Miss achieved it in one great leap, when two of its toughest division rivals had their worst seasons in about nine years. So: Which one is more likely to make the next move forward in 2009? Personally, I'm not sure Ole Miss can do much better than 9-4 right now, especially if LSU and Auburn have their act together.