Wednesday June 2nd, 2010

Over the years, we've discussed again and again the various flaws and consequences of preseason polls. I believe I've recycled the phrase "inherently arbitrary" more often than Jimmy Traina has led Hot Clicks with Minka Kelly.

But any debate always comes back to the same, unavoidable fact: Officially or unofficially, the sport will always have preseason polls because there will always be preview magazines -- and fans love preview magazines. The first wave has already begun hitting the newsstands, and while most follow the same general hierarchy that my colleague Andy Staples first proffered last January (Alabama, Ohio Sate, Boise State, et. al.), the industry's most famous contrarian, Phil Steele, has outdone himself this year.

Phil Steele has rated Oklahoma as his preseason No. 1 team ... huh? How would you rate his ranking on a scale of 1-10, with "1" being spot-on and "10" being way past ludicrous? -- Jason, Ankeny, Iowa

I'd put it a lot closer to 1 than 10, seeing as there are easily 100 teams out there that would be more unlikely picks. While certainly surprising, I hardly find it ludicrous to pick a team that's played for the national championship four team times in the past decade (including as recently as two years ago) to return to that level. If we're assigning a 1 to Alabama (though the more accurate term would be "safe bet," not "spot-on"), then I'd rate Steele's pick a 3.

While Steele, like all of us, has had some notable busts over the years, in general, his are the most accurate predictions of any notable publication (as he's not shy to point out). The reasons are twofold. For one, he clearly puts more time and detail into this endeavor than any reasonably sane person (I believe they had to create a new font size to accommodate all the info he crams onto a single page). But more importantly, Steele, more so than most prognosticators, puts as much emphasis on trying to project forward as backward, on guessing how a team will mature and how it will fare against its given schedule rather than defaulting to how it did the year before.

A classic example came in 2008. I was still an AP voter at the time and clung firmly to my belief that a preseason poll should be treated solely as a "starting point." If a team finished the previous year No. 2 and returned 17 starters, it deserved to start the next season just as high. Hence, most other voters and I had Georgia (which fit that exact description) No. 1. Steele, on the other hand, went with Florida, a team that lost four games the previous year -- including a blowout to Georgia -- but had both potential and a more favorable schedule. Guess who was right?

Now that I'm free of voting responsibilities, I, too, can take more chances when it comes to preseason predictions, and the fact is every one of this year's token contenders has serious questions. Therefore, I have no problem with someone taking a stab on a sleeper team, and the Sooners -- coming off a deceiving five-loss season (three came by a field goal or less) in which they seemed to gel at the end (crushing Oklahoma State 27-0 and putting up 477 yards on Stanford in the Sun Bowl) -- could theoretically fit that bill. Bob Stoops has a history of producing prolific quarterbacks and Landry Jones began fitting that mold last year once he had time to acclimate.

But here's what I don't get about Steele's pick. I don't see anything particularly advantageous about Oklahoma's schedule. The Sooners do miss Big 12 North favorite Nebraska, but they face Cincinnati, Florida State and Air Force out of conference and play in arguably the nation's toughest division. Furthermore, the single most important area I look at in the preseason is a team's offensive line. Oklahoma's was terrible last year and its most accomplished performer (Trent Williams) is gone.

This hardly seems the stuff of a No. 1 team, but again, I'd hardly call it ludicrous. In fact, 10 years ago this fall, Stoops won his lone national championship in Norman -- coming off a five-loss season.

Do you understand why Michigan still supports RichRod? Terrible record, terrible recruiting and terrible ethics. Violations at Michigan (first time in 100 years), investigations at WVU, personal legal trouble and lawsuits -- this guy is sleazy. I thought [new AD] Dave Brandon, a real Michigan man who played for Bo, wouldn't tolerate this, but for some reason they won't fire this clown. The buyout is moot now because of the NCAA violations. Why don't they just fire this guy? -- Mark Rusin, Aurora, Ill.

Consider myself a loyal alumnus of the University of Michigan. I truly believe that coach Rodriquez is the perfect example of the Peter Principle -- he was promoted to the level of his incompetence. While I appreciate that most coaches have a preference for a particular system or style of football, the really good ones modify their systems to fit the strengths of their players. He did the opposite and ran off campus one of the best blue-chip quarterbacks and a future first-round pick for the NFL (Ryan Mallett). He also alienated other team members, let alone a horde of alums (myself included). He will not win this year and hopefully he will be gone. -- Samuel Kupper, Spring, Texas

First off, a clarification: Even if it wanted to, Michigan cannot yet fire Rodriguez for cause (and thus avoid a buyout) as Mark suggests because the NCAA infractions process has not yet run its course. Ohio State made that mistake with former basketball coach Jim O'Brien and wound up on the wrong end of a $2.4 million wrongful termination suit. But even if that weren't the case, what purpose would it serve Brandon (who only took over the job in March) to fire his coach three months before the start of a season? Think the program's in bad shape now? Good luck recruiting while a lame-duck interim coach from Rodriguez's staff spends the next seven months playing out the string.

As for Samuel's assessment, while I did get a kick out of taking a trip down memory lane to Sociology 101 with the Peter Principle, I fail to see how a coach who won 32 games in three seasons at a BCS-conference program is unqualified to coach a prestigious Big Ten team. While many of Rodriguez's problems are unquestionably self-inflicted, others are contained in the e-mails above. From the minute he was hired, Rodriguez has been dealing with the unwanted, and quite frankly silly, stigma that he's not a "Michigan man."

Michigan's fan base, more than any I know, suffers from a serious philosophical divide that dates back to Lloyd Carr's latter years. "Old-guard" Wolverines fans cling admirably but quaintly to the days of Bo Schembechler. They held Carr in high regard (rightfully so) for his loyalty and integrity and were leery of Rodriguez from the get-go, making a stink over any little thing he did differently. But even when Michigan was still winning nine-plus games annually and going to Rose Bowls under Carr, I was often besieged by e-mails from the "new school" sect of Wolverines fans lamenting his outdated schemes, conservative play-calling and propensity for humbling non-conference defeats. These are the folks who embraced Rodriguez's culture change and acknowledge he hasn't had enough time yet to make a proper evaluation.

Unfortunately for Rodriguez, the voices in the former camp are much louder right now than those in the latter, primarily because Rodriguez has dug himself such a deep hole with his record. If he went 9-3 last year, the recent NCAA infractions, while unpleasant, would be a blip on fans' radar. Rodriguez is hardly the first coach to come in to a school and lay down the law, run off players, etc. Nick Saban did the same thing at Alabama. The difference: 'Bama fans were so hungry for a winner, they bought into whatever Saban said. At Michigan, RichRod has had to prove himself from day one -- and so far, he hasn't.

Is this the year that Washington returns to elite status in the Pac-10, or will USC and Oregon thwart its chances? Will it take one more year? -- Eric, Lincoln, Neb.

That depends on your definition of "elite." Will Washington -- 5-7 last year and eight years removed from its last winning season -- suddenly morph into a version of Don James/Mark Brunell/Steve Emtman incarnate? I wouldn't count on it. The Huskies are only a couple of years removed from an 0-12 season. They were so lacking for talent during most of the Tyrone Willingham era that it will take several years for Steve Sarkisian to completely flush the leftovers and restock the cupboard.

But after visiting UW in the spring, I see no reason why this team can't take a big step forward this fall -- at the very least to a bowl game, if not the realm of eight or nine wins. In addition to their obvious best selling point, quarterback Jake Locker, who's now had a full year in Sarkisian's offense, the Huskies have some legit skill players. Locker won't be lacking for receiving targets, and the young backfield of Chris Polk (1,113 yards as a freshman) and early enrollees Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper (both of whom turned heads this spring) has a chance to be special.

However, I'm not as confident in Washington's defense, which has some standouts (defensive lineman Cameron Elisara, cornerback Desmond Trufant) but still isn't filled with upper-echelon players. And depth will be a concern on both sides of the ball. You should see the Huskies back in the upper half of the conference this fall, but what happens the year after is anyone's guess. Washington is a rising program, but so is nearly every other team in the Pac-10 right now.

You wrote: "We all remember the USC-Oklahoma game. We saw what happened. It's not going to vanish from our collective memories just because someone revises the BCS media guide." No, you saw USC beat OKLAHOMA. You never saw USC beat Auburn, who had a new offensive coordinator that turned Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams into first-round NFL draft picks, and yes, Campbell, Brown and Williams went on to have better NFL careers than Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White. Oklahoma beat one ranked team that year: Texas. Meanwhile, Auburn beat No. 15 Tennessee twice, No. 16 LSU and No. 7 Georgia. All USC did was prove Oklahoma -- which hasn't won a BCS game since beating Washington State in 2002 -- to be a fraud. I bet Utah would have beaten Oklahoma in 2004 as well. -- Gerald Ball, Norcross, Ga.

It's times like these that I can't fathom why the overwhelming majority of you want a college playoff. Where would the sport be without timeless, hypothetical, ultimately unanswerable debates like this?

I know you are very critical of fans whose opinion of their team out kick the team's accomplishments. I am here to self-report in hopes you will go easy on our school if you ever discover these infractions. I need your help in explaining to my fellow USF fans that an annual game with UCF is good for the program. Skip Holtz's hire has opened the debate since Jim Leavitt was adamantly against it. -- Shamus, Tampa, Fla.

I can see where this would be contentious. For one thing, I'm guessing a large majority of the national audience reading this doesn't know, or care, that USF (South Florida) and UCF (Central Florida) are two different schools, and that's exactly the perception Leavitt was trying to squash. He wanted USF, as a BCS-conference school that plays annually in bowl games, mentioned alongside the state's Big Three (Florida, Florida State and Miami) more so than a Conference USA school (UCF), and last year's win in Tallahassee was seen as a watershed moment in that regard.

Now -- on to reality. Anything that generates interest in your program is a good thing, and USF-UCF (back when they still played, from 2005-08) generated far more coverage within the state than last year's USF season-opening slate of Wofford, Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern. This year's opener features Stony Brook. By all means, get the Gators, Seminoles and 'Canes on the schedule whenever possible, but what's to lose by scheduling UCF? The game itself? Hey, if you're so much better than the Knights as you claim, then that shouldn't be a problem, should it?

Ever since those fleeting years of glory at the beginning of the Ralph Friedgen era, Maryland seems to regress just about every season. Do Terps fans have any reason to be hopeful this year, or really any time in the near future? -- Dan, Washington D.C.

Friedgen's tenure reminds me in many ways of Joe Tiller's at Purdue. Both were highly regarded offensive minds. Both made a big splash early. (Friedgen notched three straight 10-win seasons right off the bat; Tiller immediately snapped Purdue's 13-year bowl drought and went to the Rose Bowl in his fourth season.) Both then fell further and further into mediocrity. However, just as Tiller's program kept going to bowl games and never sunk back to the depths it was at prior to his arrival until his very last season (a 4-8 disaster), Friedgen's team only truly bottomed out last year (when the Terps went a nightmarish 2-10).

It may seem like ages ago now, but Maryland did go to three straight bowl games just before that, winning nine games in 2006 and eight in '08. Last year's team was extremely young, which doesn't excuse 2-10 but does explain the dip. I wouldn't count out a renaissance this year. The coaches seem very optimistic about new quarterback Jamarr Robinson, and there's enough talent around him (running backs Da'Rell Scott and D.J. Adams, receivers Torrey Smith and Adrian Cannon) to be successful if the more experienced offensive line makes dramatic, necessary improvement.

But Maryland will find itself in very awkward territory if Friedgen goes 4-8 this year. Just like at Purdue, Maryland has already named a head coach in waiting, offensive coordinator James Franklin. But Tiller had already announced his retirement prior to his disappointing final season, so Boilers fans could immediately turn their attention to successor Danny Hope (who had only rejoined Tiller's staff a year before his ascension). Friedgen has given no indication he intends to retire yet (his contract runs through 2011), and if the school forces him out, it would presumably need to cut ties with Franklin as well. The Fridge has surprised us before. Here's hoping for all involved he can do it again.

To your question regarding rooting for favorites versus underdogs: I have a perspective of both as my undergraduate degree is from Texas and my graduate degree is from Purdue. Despite my passion for Texas, I found myself becoming disinterested in following the 'Horns each season after they lost to OU in the early 2000s. The season was pretty much shot since the national title became highly unlikely as of mid-October. But for Purdue, the possibility of upsetting a Big Ten power or making a New Year's Day-level bowl kept my interest. In general, winning is a relief for me as a Texas fan since that is what should happen. In contrast, winning is a thrill for me as a Purdue fan. -- Mark, Raleigh, N.C.

First of all, I was pleasantly swarmed by responses to Elijah's question last week. The most interesting revelation is just how many of you, like Mark, have two college football rooting interests, be it undergrad and grad school; grew up one place but went to school another; or simply relocated after graduation. Whatever the case, in nearly every such instance, the sentiment was exactly like Mark's: Rooting for the underdog provides more thrills, and less frustration, than rooting for a powerhouse.

Here is a sampling of other responses:

Being born and raised in Columbus as a Buckeyes fan, this goes against all that I was taught to believe in college football, but pulling for the underdog that reaches the peak once or twice in a lifetime is much more gratifying. I went to Wake Forest. A couple years after I graduated they won the ACC Championship. Even though it was the most watered-down ACC ever, it was still more exciting than any of the Buckeyes' last six Big Ten titles. -- Kyle, Columbus, Ohio

If you still live in Columbus, Kyle, it was probably quite wise of you to leave off your last name.

My family has been Wazzu fans for years, with a few Husky fans mixed in. I can tell you that rooting for an underdog brings out a sense of loyalty that is not matched with the consistent winners. With UW in the cellar of late, many of its fans (including my relatives) have jumped off the bandwagon. But for Coug fans, win or lose, you stick by them. The depths of misery make the triumphs, like beating Vince Young and Texas in the Holiday Bowl, all the more sweet. -- John, Anchorage

At this point, anyone who's still voluntarily subjecting himself to Wazzu football week-in, week-out automatically qualifies as one of the most dedicated fans in the country.

The win-big-once-in-a-while model will eventually become more frustrating because you will remember that once-in-a-while vividly and minimize the logic that your school really does belong at the historical mid-level. The fans of the historically mid-level college (Utah, Clemson, Purdue) will just delude themselves all the more. Thus, if I was a neutral fan, I'd rather have the UF model. It's always better to be in the conversation all the time than on the outside looking in. -- Maher S. Hoque, Pittsburgh

Fair point. I've been accused of taking too many undeserved shots recently at innocent Clemson fans, so I'll refrain from further comment.

I wonder if the ideal is maybe something closer to LSU -- a team that has good enough talent to actually play in a national championship game once in a blue moon, and is reasonably good the rest of the time, but not so good that you get either soul-crushing expectations or a sense of entitlement. -- Adam K., Sturgeon Lake, Minn.

Apparently you haven't been to Baton Rouge, Adam. There is plenty of both going around.

Lost amid the powerhouse/underdog conversation, last week's conference rankings elicited almost no responses, and I'm totally fine with that. Not that we could make it through an entire Mailbag without some (misinformed) SEC chest-thumping, of course ...

I suppose you would feel differently if Michigan had finished No. 2 in 2004, you anti-Auburn putz! Besides that would make six in a row BCS championships for the SEC. Maybe that is the real reason for your position. -- Darrell, Sylacauga, Ala.

Dear sir: Vince Young called. He'd like credit for his 2005 title back. He also hopes that your current employment does not require math.

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