May 28, 2010
I've spent the last month reviewing the cases of the most plausible candidates to open the season at No. 1, hopefully in methodical, illuminating fashion. At the end of it, though, I'm only more convinced than I was a month ago that no one deserves the title of "favorite," nationally. Among the typical favorites:
Alabama is tempting fate with a vastly overhauled defense that loses 10 starters, six draft picks and three All-Americans – not just the core of the group but almost the entire group responsible for the untenable 24-game regular-season winning streak over the last two years;
Boise State, its own amazing streaks and increasingly impressive resumé of big-game wins notwithstanding, still lacks the schedule in the WAC and probably the overall respect of voters when it comes to matching up with a more traditional, talent-rich powerhouse with a championship on the line;
Texas loses the core of players on both sides of the ball largely responsible for its 25-2 run over the last two years, sending not only quarterback Colt McCoy but also fellow All-Americans Jordan Shipley, Sergio Kindle and Earl Thomas and every other Longhorns who appeared on the All-Big 12 team last December (first or second team) on to the draft;
Oregon has to deal with the distractions of a tumultuous offseason, the potentially crippling absence of its star quarterback and its characteristically sketchy defense (by national championship standards) in a conference that goes at least seven deep in plausible, would-be snipers;
And Ohio State still doesn't know if quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the unquestioned focal point of the offense after 23 consecutive (mostly unremarkable) starts, is really ready to turn the corner suggested by his MVP performance in the Rose Bowl.
It's clear enough that Alabama is destined to open the season ended the last one, as the consensus, largely undisputed No. 1. But it seems just as clear that, with the Tide's glaring defensive losses, it's something of a default position, granted because none of the competition has enough going for it to overthrow the status quo. The only notable poll that hasn't conceded Alabama at No. 1, to date gleefully abandoned all manner of conventional wisdom by springing for Oklahoma in the top spot, reaffirming just how unpalatable the other challengers really are – as long as you feel like you're going out on a limb, you might as well go all the way out.
Even if they're the obvious choice, then, the Tide don't have the air of invincibility that USC carried into 2005 and 2007, or that Florida had last year with practically its entire lineup intact from the '08 BCS championship team. The field seemed unusually wide open in 2008, but for the opposite reason: Between Georgia, Ohio State, Florida, Oklahoma, USC and peaking darkhorses Missouri and West Virginia, at least a half-dozen team looked like potential champs at the start of the season.
The last crop of frontrunners that looked as collectively flawed as this year's was 2006, when an uneasy consensus emerged around Notre Dame and Ohio State, to no one's satisfaction. The Buckeyes (like Alabama this fall, replacing an absurd number of starters and draft picks from their chart-topping 2005 defense) opened at No. 1 in the mainstream polls and remained on top all season, until a merciless championship pantsing by Florida. That's the trend for top-ranked teams lately: Beginning with Oklahoma in 2003, the consensus preseason favorite has run the table in the regular season six times, only to be dropped in either the BCS championship or the conference championship on five of those occasions – only USC in 2004 survived a preseason No. 1 ranking to finish No. 1, and did it by wiping out co-favorite Oklahoma, with which the Trojans had shared the top spot throughout the season. In that sense, being No. 1 in August is not all it's cracked up to be.
And frankly, proceedings are almost always more fun in the absence of a generally acknowledged frontrunner – see 2006, when Louisville, Texas and USC all blew certain title shots with dramatic November/December losses, leading to the Florida/Michigan showdown for the second BCS spot opposite Ohio State in the final hours of the regular season; or 2008, which for all practical purposes should have ended in a split championship after Florida, Texas, USC and Utah emerged from a pack of at least six teams with a legitimate claim on a title shot before the bowl games. Or, best of all, 2007, when preseason favorites USC and LSU fell in consecutive weeks in mid-October, Illinois knocked surprising Ohio State out of the top spot in November, the second-ranked team in any given week lost seven times after midseason, Missouri and West Virginia were knocked out of certain championship bids in the 11th hour and LSU and Ohio State ascended to the least-anticipated championship game of the BCS era.
No, the issue in 2007 turned out to be determining a worthy frontrunner at the end of the season. But given last year's turgid, predictable march to the Rose Bowl, I'd be perfectly willing to exchange a little certainty at the end for some old-fashioned chaos en route. This fall, hopefully, invincibility is out.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.