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Stewart Mandel

Inflated expectations

Which teams have been most overrated since '90? Start with Washington

Posted: Tuesday August 31, 2004 12:25PM; Updated: Tuesday August 31, 2004 9:40PM

It's beyond rare that a Mailbag question inspires me to voluntarily embark on a cumbersome research project, but such was the case with this intriguing and very timely query from Tom Atwood of Charlotte, N.C.:

  Cody Pickett
There were high hopes for Washington and Cody Pickett entering 2003, but they finished just 6-6.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

I was hoping you could settle a bet I have with some college buddies. Since 1990, who do you think has been the most overrated college program when comparing the school's preseason rank to where it finished the season?

With the help of Lexis-Nexis, I went back and found the first and last AP poll from every season and counted each time a team finished at least seven spots lower than predicted. Why seven? I don't know, It just sounds more dramatic than six.

Ladies and gentlemen, the nation's most overrated program, with eight such occurrences in 14 seasons, is ... the Washington Huskies. Not far behind were -- here's a shocker -- Notre Dame (seven), USC (seven), Auburn (six) and Texas (six).

While I'm a little surprised at Washington, overall the results aren't too shocking. With the exception of USC and Texas' recent resurgences, these are all teams far removed from their heyday (with the Huskies peaking right at the beginning of the period in question), yet many voters have a hard time looking at tradition-rich teams objectively. On paper, Notre Dame could have the exact same qualifications as, say, Iowa, but nine out of 10 times the voter is going to favor the Irish. It's something I try to make a conscious effort to avoid myself. Case in point: Minnesota finished 20th last season and returns nearly its entire team, yet is starting the season five spots lower, while Auburn, which finished last season unranked, is suddenly 17th.

Anticipating what your next question was going to be, yes, I compiled the same data for teams that finished at least seven spots higher than predicted. Teams didn't make nearly as many regular appearances in this category, probably because after exceeding expectations a few times voters got the message and started picking them higher.

The leaders, with five instances each, were Ole Miss, Iowa and Alabama, followed by LSU, Washington State, Virginia Tech, Kansas State and Texas A&M at four. The Rebels, Hawkeyes, Crimson Tide, Tigers and Cougars are textbook examples of teams whose breakthroughs have been sporadic enough so as to catch voters off guard when they happen. I was surprised, however, to see Alabama on the list. You'd think, with their tradition, voters would be more likely to err on the side of optimism.

Two final thoughts: If the media is so stricken with East Coast bias, as West Coasters allege, how come two Pac-10 teams are among the three most commonly overrated? And should we take this as a warning for this season in regard to USC? To answer the latter ...

After watching USC vs. Virginia Tech, I was quite disappointed. Despite being ranked No. 1, I hardly think the Trojans could take on LSU's defense or Oklahoma's offense. I understand it was the first game of the season, but do you honestly think USC is that good?
--Ron Hutson, Moreno Valley, Calif.

Stewart Mandel will answer questions from readers each week in his mailbag.
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I felt all along that most pundits weren't placing enough significance on USC's potential problems at offensive line and receiver, and sure enough, these faults were exposed against the Hokies. However, I'd be very leery of putting too much stock in one game. It reminded me a lot of Oklahoma's second game of the season last year at Alabama. After struggling to put away a team that would wind up finishing 4-9, I felt the Sooners hardly deserved their No. 1 status. As it turned out, though, the two long Jason White passes that decided the outcome were a preview of things to come, as OU steamrolled every other team it played in the regular season. Matt Leinart's 11-of-13 second half Saturday night could well be a sign of things to come as he develops a better chemistry with his new receivers. If the offensive line doesn't improve, though, the Trojans will get knocked off sooner rather than later.

Will the Al Borges offense at Auburn be as "West Coast" as people are expecting? I imagine that with one of the best backfields in the country, Borges will keep it on the ground a good bit. Thoughts?
 --Matt, Moody, Ala.

I think people have a misconception about the West Coast offense, as evidenced by a lot of the stories written about Nebraska this offseason. The idea isn't to throw the ball 50 times a game; it's to be balanced between the run and the pass. That's how the 49ers operated during their Super Bowl era, and that's how the Raiders played under Bill Callahan. So yes, there will be no shortage of handoffs to Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, but what could make things more exciting for Tigers fans is that they may also see the pair catching passes out of the backfield, or even lining up at receiver. The key to the whole thing will be QB Jason Campbell. It's a complicated offense to learn, and he'll have to know it frontward and backward to be successful.

What are your top five sports-related books? Preferably, non-fiction.
 --Ben Grizzle, Birmingham, Ala.

I don't have a top five per se, but I do have a couple recommendations of college football-related books that are on the shelves now:

Bruce Feldman's 'Cane Mutiny, which hits stores Tuesday, is a good behind-the-scenes chronicle of Miami's rise to dominance, from the lean pre-Howard Schnellenberger years to the Jimmy Johnson/Michael Irvin fatigues era, through probation and the Butch Davis/Larry Coker resurgence. Complete with some memorable quotes from Luther Campbell.

I also enjoyed Warren St. John's Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. St. John, a Birmingham native and Alabama diehard who now writes for the New York Times, spent the 1999 season with the horde of RVs that travel to every Tide game, home and away. If you don't believe Alabamans are the most rabid fans in the country, you will after reading this book.

Finally, though it's not a book, you're going to want to read Pat Jordan's feature on Joe Paterno in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine. JoePa rarely opens up like he does in this article. An excerpt: "'If I do everything I can this year and we're not good, I'll say something's missing,' [he said]. He seemed physically incapable of saying the words, 'I'll retire.'"

If you were Bobby Bowden, do you even think you would take a placekicker to the Miami game this year?
--Brooks Jenkins, Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

Man, I don't even want to think about that possibility. Can you imagine if Xavier Beitia actually gets another chance to kick the game-winning field goal? If he makes it, bam -- that's the feel-good story of the year. But if he misses ... On second thought, maybe Bowden should just go for it on fourth down.

I think that the Oregon State Beavers are being way underrated! They return a great O-line, the best defense in the Pac-10 (yes, better than USC's) and a QB, Derek Anderson, who threw for over 4,000 yards last season and is ready to stop making mistakes. Why then are all of the preseason previews putting OSU -- at best -- as fourth in the Pac-10? I think that they will be vying for No. 2 and, depending on what happens Nov. 6 against USC, maybe even No. 1. What are your thoughts?
--Brock Cloutier, Corvallis, Ore.

Brock, I don't disagree with much of what you said, but I like how you conveniently left out the loss of a first-round NFL running back, Steven Jackson, and stated that Anderson is "ready to stop making mistakes" like it's a given. I'm "ready" to start dating Eliza Dushku, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen. Consider this: Last season, Oregon State ranked seventh in the country in total defense, 10th in total offense, yet managed to lose five games. I'm thinking Anderson's 24 interceptions had a lot to do with that. If he can get it under control this season, and if the running game doesn't fall off too much, then yes, the Beavers have the potential to be pretty good. But those are two pretty big ifs.

Which returning SEC quarterback has two national player-of-the-week awards under his belt, is virtually tied with Bo Jackson for career yards-per-carry average in the SEC, has several school and conference records within his reach, yet is not being mentioned on any Heisman list or even any preseason All-SEC teams? Who is he and why the lack of coverage?
--Merrill Keith, Little Rock, Ark.

Merrill Keith? C'mon, you can't fool us, Matt Jones' mom.

By the way, you're not going to believe this, but Matt Jones' mom's name is Paula. And she's from Arkansas.

Finally ... all right, go ahead. Have your little fun with my new head shot:

Go back to your old photo! This new one is dark and brooding; you look mysterious and complicated. It seems too staged and cool. Don't go Hollywood on us!
--Aaron Fulkerson, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

What's with the long face? You looked much friendlier in your other picture. Now I'm almost too intimidated to read your article.
--Stephen Williamson, Austin, Texas

You look so sad in your new SI picture this season. Is it because Katrina from The Apprentice got married?
--Christine, Burke, Va.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. For whatever reason, I wasn't offered the opportunity to review the new photo before it went up, but I actually kind of like it. I call it my, "I just read my 4,000th 'Where is Steve Spurrier going to coach next season?' e-mail, and there's no telling whether I'm going to laugh, cry or go postal" glare.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for

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