These elements, and not just talent, determine a team's season
Has any televised sporting event in the history of televised sporting events been replayed more often than last year's Michigan-Appalachian State game? At one point last year, the Big Ten Network was showing it seemingly on loop, which seems strange considering the embarrassment it caused one of its members' schools. Now a reader talks of seeing it again recently on another network.
So I was watching the Michigan-Appalachian State game on ESPN Classic today and it reminded me of how badly some teams can be overestimated in the preseason (Tennessee '05, Cal '07). And even though Michigan ended the year by beating Florida, finishing 9-4 in no way equates to a No. 5 preseason ranking. So I'm wondering if you could give some insight, as a voter, as to why the AP and coaches poll have so drastically misjudged certain teams?
As I've said many times before, preseason polls are nothing more than educated guesswork. In attempting to rank teams you haven't yet seen play a game, you're basically just taking last year's teams and reordering them based on how many key players are returning and which ones were lost.
In defense of the voters, I have to say they've done a pretty impressive job over the years of predicting the elite teams. Every single year since the BCS' inception, either or both the preseason No. 1 and 2 teams in the AP and coaches polls have played in the championship game. In fact, 2006 was the only season in which a top-two team finished with as many as three losses (both AP No. 2 Notre Dame and coaches No. 2 Texas).
It's once you start going a little further down the list that the botched forecasts start becoming more common, the most glaring example being Alabama in 2000. The Crimson Tide started No. 3, lost their season-opener at UCLA and finished the year 3-8.
There's no universal explanation as to why certain teams fail to live up to the pollsters' expectations, but I do know this: Talent alone does not dictate a team's fortunes, and there are certain elements few prognosticators can possibly predict. They include:
Injuries. A team may look great on paper going into the season, but that can go out the window pretty quickly once a few key players go down. Though Cal's second-half implosion last season could have been due to any number of factors, it seems clear in hindsight that one of them was QB Nate Longshore not only spraining his ankle but continuing to play on it the rest of the season and losing confidence as he struggled. Perhaps the rest of the team lost confidence in him as well.
Chemistry. No outsider truly know what's going on inside a team's locker room, but that 2005 Tennessee team -- which started the year No. 3 and finished it 5-6 -- seemed like a classic case of a team in chaos. It started with a string of off-the-field incidents in the spring and continued throughout a season filled with mental miscues and a never-ending quarterback controversy. Talent clearly wasn't the issue, as the Vols went 10-3 the year before and 9-4 the year after.
Coaching turmoil. Just as we don't know what's going on inside the locker room, there's always the possibility of disharmony among the staff. And neither the coaches or players are immune to the affect of constant hot-seat speculation. The 1999 Alabama team weathered through an entire year of speculation about troubled coach Mike DuBose to win an SEC championship but it may have proven too much when the rumors began anew as soon as the Tide lost to UCLA.
Recruiting mistakes. Both fans and voters often fail to recognize that a team's recruiting level has dropped off until well after it's happened. It took years before the voters figured out they should stop automatically slotting Florida State into the top 10. I think much the same thing happened with Michigan last year -- voters assumed the Wolverines would simply plug in new All-Americans to replace the ones they lost on defense, but that didn't happen, at least not early in the year.
Because of any or all of the aforementioned factors, I can pretty much guarantee the same thing will happen with at least one of this year's highly ranked teams -- but best of luck predicting which one. Could it be ...
I see that LSU is ranked in almost everyone's top 10. Doesn't this seem to be the same mistake everyone made with Michigan last year? Granted, their recruiting is top-notch, but they lost five or six of their best players from last year's team and they play in a loaded conference. Your thoughts?
Actually, other than their season-opening opponent, I find very little similarity between 2008 LSU and '07 Michigan. For one thing, the Tigers are coming off a national championship, not a Rose Bowl blowout. More important, I have none of the aforementioned reservations about LSU's ability as a program to reload.
The Tigers have recruited at such a high level for so many years now that there's really no difference between them and USC. Just as the Trojans lose a bunch of stars to the NFL every year, plug in new ones and win their usual 11 games, so, too, do the Tigers. They've done so four of the past five years. Remember: Last year's team won the national title despite losing the No. 1 pick in the draft, JaMarcus Russell.
This year's LSU team reminds me of Texas' team the year after its 2005 title -- still loaded at seemingly every position but quarterback. This does not necessarily mean Andrew Hatch will put up the same kind of first-year numbers as Colt McCoy, but I do think the pieces are in place for him to be fairly successful. The Tigers return four of their five starting offensive linemen, including potential All-Americans Ciron Black and Herman Johnson, and a pair of proven receivers in Demetrius Byrd and Brandon LaFell. While I do think they'll miss RB Jacob Hester tremendously, their backfield is so deep that leading returning rusher Keiland Williams is currently third string.
But the most telling sign of the talent pipeline in Baton Rouge right now is the seemingly never-ending stream of elite defensive linemen. You would think losing a player the caliber of Glenn Dorsey would be devastating, but the Tigers will simply plug in Ricky Jean-Francois, defensive MVP of the national-title game, whom NFL scouts are already drooling over. The Tigers may lose a couple of games early -- especially with road trips to Auburn and Florida -- but I expect they'll be rolling again by season's end and finish in the top 10.