Don't Call 'em Upsets The early-season "surprises" only point up how little anyone knows going into September

September 21, 2003

College football nation loves its upsets. The game thrives on
unpredictability and on televised images of lubricated fans
storming the field in celebration of the unthinkable. Every
weekend there is talk of shocking and stunning upsets, the latest
coming last Saturday, when Arkansas took down then No. 6 Texas,
UNLV dumped No. 14 Wisconsin and Washington State drilled No. 17
Colorado.

In truth, early-season games like those aren't upsets at all.
They are the pundits' comeuppance, the penalty for trying to
impose order on a sport played by 18-to 22-year-olds. The fault
lies in large part with the preseason polls, in which coaches and
the media put together a Top 25 and use that untested ranking as
a weekly template. Those polls are embarrassingly unscientific:
Count up the returning starters, examine the schedule and rank
'em. Based on this, games are either upsets ... or not. Hence,
the unranked Razorbacks thrashing the Longhorns in Austin is a
huge upset, even though it was apparent by the end of the game
that Texas quarterback Chance Mock isn't Chris Simms, and the
Longhorns' defense isn't equipped to deal with a resourceful,
athletic quarterback like Arkansas's Matt Jones. Who knew?

The preseason poll process can't anticipate the sudden emergence
of a superstar, like Ohio State's Maurice Clarett a year ago or
Virginia Tech's Michael Vick in 1999--freshmen who transformed
solid teams into national-title contenders. It also can't foresee
the sudden maturation of an older player, such as Michigan
quarterback Brian Griese in '97 or Tennessee's Tee Martin in '98,
both of whom led their teams to national titles after starting
the year as question marks.

All of this would be harmless except that polls are powerful
tools, figuring prominently in the mighty BCS rankings that begin
in October. Which is precisely when the polling process should
start. Compare this week's AP poll (below left) with what it
might look like absent any influence from preseason expectations
(below right):

1) Oklahoma 1) Michigan
2) Miami 2) USC
3) Michigan 3) Georgia
4) USC 4) Oklahoma
5) Ohio State 5) LSU
6) Kansas State 6) Florida State
7) Georgia 7) Miami
8) Virginia Tech 8) Ohio State
9) Pittsburgh 9) Florida
10) Florida State 10) Nebraska

LSU and Nebraska would not be penalized for being taken too
lightly in the preseason. Judgment would be withheld on Virginia
Tech and Kansas State, who have played nobodies. Michigan would
be rewarded for thumping a Notre Dame team whose ugly win over
Washington State doesn't look so bad after the Cougars stomped
Colorado in Boulder. Games like that provide perspective,
something that is lacking in July and August. --Tim Layden

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL NUMBERS RACKET Cedric Cobbs (115 rushing yards) and Arkansas showed little concern for Texas's lofty ranking.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)