College football’s Walking Conflict of Interest no longer holds any official bearing on the sport’s national championship race. It used to account for one-third of the BCS standings, but the BCS is no more. The College Football Playoff selection committee will have the final word on who plays for the sport’s newest trophy.
But the AP and coaches polls aren’t going away, and in fact the final No. 1 team in the coaches poll will still receive the iconic crystal football of the past 16 years. More immediately, Thursday’s rankings will likely mirror in large part next month’s AP poll, thus creating the hierarchy by which teams will be judged from the outset — not to mention the numbers that will appear before their names on the ticker.
History tells us the pollsters will be wrong more than they’ll be right in their preseason guestimates.
Here’s where I think they erred.
TEAMS RANKED TOO HIGH
No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners
Poor, Sooners. The minute they knocked off Alabama in last year’s Sugar Bowl you knew they’d be the designated team that gets propped up way too high to start the next season, thus creating unrealistic expectations. Oklahoma will boast an experienced and athletic defense, but voters are blindly assuming that Trevor Knight and the offense will look more like they did that one night in January than the 12 games before that, ranking 81st nationally in yards per attempt (6.8).
Put it this way: What happened over the offseason that lifted OU seven spots higher than a Baylor team that won the Big 12 last season and beat the Sooners 41-12?
When you win at least 11 games for four straight seasons like the Ducks have, you become Teflon to preseason prognosticators. Never mind that Stanford has shut down the Ducks’ offense two years in a row. Never mind that they ended last season by losing 42-16 at Arizona, narrowly escaping Oregon State, 36-35, and scoring one offensive touchdown against Texas. We just assume they’ll be right back in the national title conversation.
Oregon’s offense should be explosive as always with standout quarterback Marcus Mariota and the entire line returning but the defense, now without longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti, is no sure thing.
No. 14 WisconsinBadgers
The Badgers deserve a certain degree of respect due both to their recent track record (49-17 since 2009) and a seemingly soft schedule outside of their opener against LSU. But coach Gary Andersen’s second team is not exactly bursting with sure things. Star running back Melvin Gordon is one of them, and the offensive line will be solid as always, but Wisconsin returns just three defensive starters and must replace stalwarts like linebacker Chris Borland.
Remember, the Badgers finished last season 21st following season-ending losses to Penn State and South Carolina. It stands to reason they’ll be slightly worse, not better, in 2014.
No. 18 Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils are coming off a breakthrough 10-win season and Pac-12 South championship so you can understand voters giving them a token nod to begin 2014. Taylor Kelly is an underrated quarterback, and he has a strong receiving corps. But ASU returns just two defensive starters and will be relying heavily on freshmen and juco transfers. That doesn’t bode well in a conference filled with veteran quarterbacks and loaded offenses.
The Sun Devils should start 3-0 before beginning a stretch of UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington. Here’s guessing they won’t still be in the Top 20 then.
The analytics crowd is already predicting the Tigers’ demise. All those miracle finishes last year are sure to even out. But that suggests Auburn will have the same margin for error. On the contrary, Gus Malzahn’s offense should be far more lethal this year now that quarterback Nick Marshall had a full offseason in his system.
He has four returning starters up front and an incredibly deep receiving corps. You don’t need miracles if you’re putting up 50 on people. The one strike against the Tigers is their schedule, which includes trips to K-State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. I still think they’ll make the playoff.
No. 12 Georgia Bulldogs
The Bulldogs are the classic team that was much better than their 8-5 record last season. Injuries absolutely decimated them. Quarterback Hutson Mason got valuable experience following Aaron Murray’s injury, Todd Gurley may be the nation’s top running back and new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will get the most out of a loaded front seven.
Both SEC and now national voters have pegged South Carolina higher than Georgia in the East. I believe they have it backward.
No. 16 Clemson Tigers
The Tigers have finished 11th and eighth the past two seasons. Voters presumably dropped them a few rungs due to the departure of offensive stars Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. But look at the other side of the ball. Clemson brings back nearly the entire front seven from a defense that improved from 69th to 23rd nationally last season, most notably All-American defensive end Vic Beasley. And coordinator Chad Morris’ offense will be fine.
Of course, three of the Tigers’ opponents — Florida State, South Carolina and Georgia — rank in the Top 12. But they played them all last year and still finished in the Top 10.
NR Missouri Tigers
Considering most preseason polls involve taking last year’s final order and rearranging it a bit, why on earth is one of last year’s Top 5 teams unranked to start the next? Because it’s Missouri, not Texas. The Tigers certainly have their hands full replacing 14 starters, most notably defensive line standouts Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. But quarterback Maty Mauk is hardly a newcomer and last year’s D-line was so deep that the new starters come in experienced.
I’m under no delusion Missouri will win 12 again, but that’s quite the lack of respect to leave it out of the Top 25 altogether. Gary Pinkel probably loves it, though.
NR Duke Blue Devils
UNC’s in there, but the defending Coastal champions are not? Unacceptable.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” will be released in August. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.