College Football Should Do Away with Preseason Rankings

By Christopher Gabriel,

I love college football.  It is unlike any other sport on the planet.  The pageantry, traditions and unbridled emotion from its fans allow it to walk alone in its uniqueness.  College football also walks alone when it comes time to crown a champion.  Rather than have an actual playoff, there is an Olympic figure skating-like system combining the USA Today coaches poll, the Harris Interactive poll and the average of six computer rankings into what becomes BCS team rankings. From that, the format allegedly gives us the best possible match-up to determine a champion in the BCS championship game.

But well before we even get to the BCS championship game, every season starts off with what I believe is the most useless, often detrimental, component of the entire sport: Preseason rankings.

I can already hear the screams from college football purists, and magazine editors, emphatically explaining why we must have these rankings. They’ll say the rankings are an integral part of the fabric that is college football; they’re the unofficial kick-off not only to the season, but for great dialogue and debate on sportstalk radio, ESPN and team message boards from coast-to-coast.  The rankings are, they’ll tell us, the natural starting point for the season about to unfold.

And to all of those points, I say they should be tossed out with yesterday’s garbage. 

The only thing more ridiculous than the concept of preseason rankings is the suggestion that the BCS championship game is, as many conference commissioners like to say, “the best system we have.”  No, it’s the system we’ve been given for any number of reasons having nothing to do with common sense, but that’s a debate for another time.

In season after season, teams are given a projection – a preseason ranking – based largely on how they break down on paper.  But there’s also the element of what I call the program’s “wow” factor.  Florida and USC immediately come to mind, and in their cases the hype associated with both is well-deserved.  But the way both the Gators and Trojans have fared in recent years, they could return zero starters on either side of the ball while bringing in average recruiting classes and still find their way into the preseason top 10.  And that is where the issues begin because that scenario happens more times than it doesn’t.

Sometimes the name of the program and what they’ve done lately, even if it’s been little more than a gradual rate of progress for several years, turns what is an average to good team into a top 10, potential national championship team . . . at least according to the preseason rankings. 

Meanwhile, it’s often the case that a team starting low in the rankings but ultimately showing itself over the course of a season to be worthy of a high ranking, if not in the top two or three, struggles to make it up the ladder.  The reason?  When teams in front of them are also winning, the chance to jump them becomes more difficult.  It’s the way the poll system tends to operate:  As long as a team is undefeated, it will rarely be jumped by another team.

We’ve already seen the folly of preseason rankings this season with Clemson.

Ranked ninth in both the preseason AP and USA Today polls and at least one college football preview magazine (Lindy’s), the Tigers came out in the Georgia Dome, a neutral field, against No. 24 Alabama and got hammered by the Crimson Tide 34-10.  And really, it wasn’t that close.

Clemson was returning 16 starters from a 9-4 season and looked to be the prohibitive favorite to win the ACC.  When looking at their overall resume, of course they were worthy of a preseason top 10 ranking.  Right?  Apparently not.

What happens now is Clemson will have a significant drop while Bama likely gets a major bump.  And what both shifts will illustrate are voters correcting the way they view each team because they’ve now seen the teams play.  What a marvelous concept: Assess how good a team is after seeing them play.

Upsets happen all the time in college football.  The 2007 season had more than any year I can remember.  But far too often, teams get penalized without ever having a realistic chance of making it to the magical land known as BCS Bowl Oz simply because of where they began in the rankings.

The solution is simple: Wait.  Wait for teams to get three or four games behind them.  By the end of September most every program that is a major player, or is perceived to be a major player, has played at least one game against another marquee program.  And by October 1, everyone has a much clearer idea of which teams are truly legitimate and which ones aren’t.  The chances of teams being ranked too high or too low, and staying there, from their preseason rankings are minimized by actually seeing teams play, first, and then making a judgment.

It’s far from foolproof, but it’s better than the system we’ve always used.  College football won’t suffer simply by waiting one month to release rankings.  They already do it with the BCS rankings but that’s practically pointless considering many teams “earned” their human poll ranking purely on where they started before any games were played.  

It all makes sense to me.  Then again, so does a playoff but that’s not coming anytime soon. 

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About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.

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