It’s not easy being No. 1.
Florida State, last year’s national champion, sits atop the recently released coaches poll in an unenviable position. No preseason No. 1 in the coaches poll has gone on to finish with that ranking since USC in 2004, and five of the past six preseason No. 1s have finished their season ranked No. 8 or lower.
There are just too many things that happen during the year that can change the outcome of the season. From injuries to disciplinary issues, the composition of a team can change in an instant and any hope of winning a national title can go down the drain with it.
That’s not to say I disagree with ranking Florida State at No. 1. It is, after all, coming off an undefeated season and does have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, who was far-and-away the best player on the field a year ago.
But to understand my dismay with preseason polls, one only has to look back to the top five that started last season and the top five that ended it.
Here’s what the 2013 preseason coaches poll looked like (with each team’s poll finish in parentheses):
Ohio State (t-10)
And here’s what the coaches poll looked like at the end of the season (with each team’s preseason ranking in parentheses)
Florida State (12)
Michigan State (unranked)
South Carolina (7)
No one could fault the coaches for leaving Auburn, Michigan State and Missouri out of the rankings. Of the three, only Michigan State had a winning record (7-6) after the 2012 season. But it speaks to the point that you never know what you’re going to get until you play the game.
That’s why haters of preseason polls should be encouraged by the College Football Playoff. The coaches poll and the AP poll, which will be released Aug. 17, have nothing to do with who will play for a national championship this year (and for years to come). Of course, there’s no doubt the voting committee in the College Football Playoff will look at these rankings to get a good jumping-off point, but those committee members don’t release their poll until Oct. 28, and then every Tuesday for five weeks afterward until we get our four-team playoff. It’s a complex system that you can read all about here, but it seems to be the fairest way to choose a champion.
So does that mean college football preseason polls will eventually become obsolete?
We as a society love to be able to quantify things and until the poll that actually matters comes out in October, we need a way to distinguish the top teams from the riff-raff. We want to be able to call our team No. 1 even if it might not be the top team in the eyes of the College Football Playoff committee.
And that is where the true mettle of polls such as the coaches and AP will prove their worth.
Perhaps both polls will have Florida State as their No. 1 team, but what if, say, Arkansas, a preseason unranked team, is undefeated as well? According to the NCAA, Arkansas has the nation’s toughest schedule and it plays in what many consider to be the nation’s toughest conference. In the coaches and AP polls, an undefeated Florida State would stay No. 1 because that’s where it started, however, Arkansas could rise to No. 1 in the College Football Playoff because of what it’s achieved regardless of how it was perceived prior to the season.
That’s because, according to the College Football Playoff website, the committee “will emphasize obvious factors like win-loss records, strength of schedule, conference championships won, head-to-head results and results against common opponents.”
With the strength of schedule coming back into play, a team like Florida State, which has the NCAA’s 47th-best schedule, might not be as highly rated in the eyes of the committee because its conference isn’t doing it any favors.
That’s not to say an undefeated Florida State team wouldn’t make the playoff — any team that manages to go undefeated in a major conference should make the playoff — but it might not command the top spot over an undefeated team from a better league.
While all of this is hypothetical, it goes to show that preseason polls could devolve into talking points instead of credible ways to rank teams. And the teams that have good seasons aren’t going to be locked out of a possible national championship because of where they started in the preseason rankings.
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