This time of year, preseason polls are a dime a dozen when it comes to projecting who'll actually play for the BCS championship in January — except for one. The lone exception is the USA Today Coaches' Poll, which makes up one-third of the Bowl Championship Series formula for determining who's No. 1 and who's No. 2 and who's left out in the cold at season's end, and which emerged Thursday morning with … drumroll, please … the Oklahoma Sooners on top to open the 2011 season.
That's no surprise — Oklahoma was the clear frontrunner as soon as the ink was dry on the 2010 season — and it's not particularly close, either. Despite the widespread Alabama love in the summer magazine polls, the Sooners picked up 42 of 59 first-place votes, leaving just 13 for the Crimson Tide and two apiece for opening-night opponents Oregon and LSU. With the right brand on the side of the helmet, a high-profile quarterback, 18 returning starters and a lopsided bowl win can still take you a long way.
The last time Oklahoma opened the season No. 1 was 2003, when it held the top spot in every Associated Press poll, Coaches' poll and BCS ranking of the season, right up until it was demolished by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game — and thanks to the computer polls, even that couldn't keep the Sooners from finishing No. 1 in the final BCS standings. If they finish up there this year, the distinction will be well-earned: Oklahoma's schedule calls for three showdowns with other teams starting in the top 10 (at Florida State, against Texas A&M in Norman, at Oklahoma State) and two more with Big 12 rivals who landed near the bottom of the poll (Missouri and Texas).
See the entire poll here. Other stray observations:
• You do realize they have to play each other, right? The Big 12 rules the top of the poll, with the Sooners, Aggies and Cowboys all opening in the top 10, but the poll at large is predictably dominated by the SEC: Eight of its dozen members appear somewhere in the top 25 — all but Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — which is going to look pretty silly when half of that number is inevitably bounced from the rankings by the other half.
• Nowhere to go but down. As expected, Auburn's fall from the top is the steepest in the 13-year history of the BCS: The Tigers will start at No. 19, making them the first defending BCS champs to drop out of the top 10 the year after winning the crystal ball. Of course, they're also the first team to lose the best offensive player and the best defensive player in the country in one fell swoop, along with more than a dozen other senior starters from the championship squad, so uncharted waters are more than justified.
Similarly, Ohio State plummets from possible championship contention in the absence of its head coach, star quarterback and five defenders who were taken in April's NFL draft, landing charitably at No. 16. The banner of "Big Ten favorite" is picked up instead by Wisconsin (No. 10) and Nebraska (No. 11).
• We're still here. Perennial lightning rod Boise State opens at No. 7 — down from last year's start in the top five, but still good enough to force another heated debate about the Broncos' national championship credentials if they get by Georgia in the season opener. Depending on how the competition shapes up, it's still awfully tough to deny an outfit that opened the season in the top ten and took out two poll-worthy teams (Georgia and TCU, which opens at No. 15) on the way to its fourth perfect season in six years.
• Brand recognition. Only five teams that finished unranked in 2010 managed to sneak into the poll to open 2011: Notre Dame (No. 18), Georgia (No. 22), Florida (No. 23), Texas (No. 24) and Penn State (No. 25). What, not enough room for Miami (No. 29) and Michigan (No. 34), too?
• …and stay out. In the meantime, the Big East is shut out of the poll completely: The consensus favorite, West Virginia, is relegated to the top of the "Also Receiving Votes" ghetto. That may be how we left things in 2010, but something tells me Dana Holgorsen will have a slightly greater impact than his colleagues are giving him credit for.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.