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Maized and confused

Why is Michigan so highly ranked in preseason polls?

Posted: Wednesday August 10, 2005 11:22AM; Updated: Wednesday August 17, 2005 5:48PM
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Michigan defense
Sure, Michigan's offense is fine. But can its defense be stingy enough in 2005 to support the Wolverines' No. 4 ranking?
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Of the many annual rituals so intrinsic to college football, one never ceases to amaze me. As sure as the birds fly south in the winter and the tax man comes calling in the spring, it seems voters can't help but rank Michigan way too high in the preseason polls.

What is this allure so powerful that coaches and sportswriters can't help but be seduced at the very sight of the Wolverines? Is it the helmets? The fight song? The warm, endearing personality of their coach? Voters are like moviegoers, who, with the promise of seeing Jessica Simpson in a bikini, hand over their $10.50 regardless of whether the movie she's starring in is actually good.

I'm referring primarily to last week's release of the preseason Coaches' poll, in which voters drank the Maize and Blue Kool-Aid and picked Michigan fourth. (To be fair, Sports Illustrated did the same thing on Tuesday.)

But seriously, folks, throw out the mystique for a moment and focus on reality. What would possibly possess someone to look at a team that finished last season 12th in the same poll, gave up 37 points or more in three of its last four games, lost its all-everything playmaker (Braylon Edwards) and top two defenders (Ernest Shazor and Marlin Jackson) and move them all the way up to fourth? If Michigan does finish the season No. 4, it would most likely mean that Lloyd Carr's team lost just one game all season. The Wolverines haven't lost fewer than three since 1999. But that didn't seem to stop the voters from picking them to finish higher than they have in any season since they won the national title eight years ago.

This is not to say that I don't think Michigan will field a very good team this fall. It always does. This is the eighth straight year the coaches have included the Wolverines in their preseason top 10, and, while the pollsters have only been right on three of the previous seven occasions, I'd say there's a better-than-average chance the Wolverines will raise their average to 50 percent this year.

Chad Henne? Michael Hart? Steve Breaston? There's a lot to like about Michigan this year ... on its offense. I have to agree with Kirk Herbstreit (as much as it pains me to say that) when he told the Detroit News last week, "On paper, it's hard for me to say Michigan is the No. 1 team in [the Big Ten]. It's all because of the way they have played in the linebacker area and secondary. They have not shown the ability to run the way they're supposed to run. ... It's not just the Texas game. This has been going on three of the last four years. [The Wolverines have] had some holes, and they've been suspect against scrambling quarterbacks and passing games."

He's right. Either the voters don't realize, or just don't care, that Michigan has finished 43rd or lower nationally in pass defense four of the past five seasons (the exception being 2003). Last year, the Wolverines ranked 42nd in scoring defense -- one spot behind Wake Forest. Michigan has had a systemic problem on defense for years, and while that hasn't prevented the always-talented Wolverines from consistently winning nine or 10 games and finishing among the nation's top 10 or 15, it has kept them from stepping into the top five. I guess the question I'd ask the voters (and my editors) is, why should I believe this year will be any different?

Maybe the problem is that coaches and writers don't necessarily view their preseason votes as a prediction of a team's final ranking. After all, Michigan's position was hardly the only one in the coaches poll that caught my eye. How about the team ranked one spot higher, Tennessee? The Vols have an excellent squad on paper, no question about it, but does anyone actually look at schedules before they fill out their ballots? What are the chances that Tennessee, or anyone else for that matter, can survive a slate that includes consecutive September road games at Florida and LSU -- plus a visit to Notre Dame, which beat the Vols last season -- with few enough blemishes to finish No. 3 in the country?

Finally, apparently the coaches have yet to get the message that there are top-25-caliber football teams outside the six BCS conferences. Last year five such teams appeared (Utah, Louisville, Boise State, Fresno State and Navy) in the final Coaches' poll of the season, but going into this year, the voters have chosen to include just one, No. 19 Boise State (which, despite returning 16 starters, is apparently six spots worse than last year's 11-1 team). No Bowling Green, though it boasts the nation's most proficient returning quarterback, Omar Jacobs. No Fresno State, which to me looks a lot like Utah did going into last season. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, however. Last year's preseason poll only included one non-BCS team (Utah).

I realize, of course, that preseason polls are inherently arbitrary, and that there's only so much you can predict in August. I have been asked to participate in The Associated Press poll for the first time this season. Soon I will reveal my preseason ballot, and less than half the teams on it will actually finish the season anywhere near where they started. Some flaws, however, you can see coming a mile away, mainly because you've seen them so many times before.

Speaking of polls ...