Washington-USC a lesson in politics

Every four years, college football season and its annual Heisman hunt converge with presidential debate season.

There are more than a few similarities between the two American pastimes: Each industry was supposedly founded on good and righteous ideals – college football as a maker of strong and educated young men, politics as a place where the most selfless of our citizens go to serve our country – but both are now consumed by greed and the pursuit of power. Pundits overemphasize every mistake on the field just like they hype every jump or drop in the political polls. Our televisions are as inundated with advertisements pumping up the next weekend’s all-or-nothing gridiron matchup as they are with negative ads milking the latest debate stumble by the opponent.

But there is something political professionals have a firm grasp of that still eludes the professionals of the college football industry.

Confidence is good, but hype is bad. And expectations should be set just low enough that exceeding them by only a bit means success in the public eye and in the polls.

A perfect example of the dangers of overhype comes on Saturday when preseason Heisman favorite Matt Barkley and his preseason No. 1 ranked USC Trojans visit Seattle to take on Washington (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX). The fact the game is sandwiched between this week’s vice presidential debate and next week’s presidential debate rematch only adds to the lesson football folks can learn from their political counterparts.

It’s a quadrennial tradition for political spin doctors to spend weeks before presidential debates tamping down their own candidates’ expectations – and burnishing their opponents’ debate credentials. “Governor Romney, he’s a good debater,” Obama said at a rally before his first debate last week. “I’m just okay.” “The president is obviously a very eloquent, gifted speaker – he’ll do just fine,” Romney told Fox News before the debate. “I’ve never been in a presidential debate like this, and it will be a new experience.”

Mitt Romney demolished the president in the debate, and his poll numbers have since risen. Perhaps if President Obama had successfully laid his debate expectations as low as, say, then-President Bush did against John Kerry in 2004 – Kerry was considered to have won all three debates, but Bush’s aides had portrayed the president as unfit for the debate format, so Bush’s poor performances did not affect the election – last week’s debate wouldn’t have affected Obama’s poll numbers as much.

This is a lesson USC coach Lane Kiffin might have applied better with his 2012 team that’s as hyped as it is talented. Not to say he didn’t try. When Kiffin was told Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez had voted Kiffin’s Trojans No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, Kiffin said, “I would not vote USC No. 1, I can tell you that much.”

But then USA Today revealed that Kiffin actually had voted for USC as the preseason No. 1, another perfect example of a coach adding to the hype surrounding his team, hype that made USC’s early-season 21-14 loss to then-21st–ranked Stanford (on FOX) even more of a fall from grace.

When the standard you’re judged by every single week is that you’re the best team in the nation, anything short of playing like the best is judged as failure.

“If you don’t win every game by 50 points, all the sudden everybody’s saying, ‘What’s wrong with you?'” Kiffin told reporters this week. “Dealing with the expectations, it’ll have a toll on you. We really try to talk all the time about the way that we prepare and how we do our work. It has nothing to do with outside people and what they believe about you as an individual and as your team.”

The sneaky truth is, for Barkley and for his team, it’s a whole lot easier when you sneak into the discussion late instead of being favored from the beginning.

Just last year, the sureshot Heisman winner was Andrew Luck. Luck had a fine season – fine enough for first overall in the NFL Draft – but the Heisman went to Robert Griffin III, who sneaked into the discussion with a season where he improved steadily and then spectacularly. Ditto for Cam Newton the year before. Few picked Sam Bradford as the top Heisman pick before his remarkable 2008 sophomore season; same with Tim Tebow in 2007. Being the preseason favorite means you need to play three solid months like a Heisman Trophy winner. Not everyone is made to deal with that sort of hype.

That same expectations game plays out for teams in all sports. Remember the Philadelphia Eagles of last year, dubbed as a “Dream Team” in the preseason before going 8-8? Or the Miami Heat the season after “The Decision,” going from perhaps the best team ever assembled to a collection of ill-fitting pieces who couldn’t win a championship? Or the New York Yankees, who, despite making the playoffs every year but one between 2001 and 2011, only won a single World Series, which because of their league-high payroll and Steinbrenner-fueled expectations was deemed a failure?

There’s a benefit to being the one nobody is talking about. There’s a benefit being the St. Louis Cardinals and sneaking into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, or being the New York Giants and having the worst record of any team that made the NFL playoffs, or being the Los Angeles Kings and winning the Stanley Cup after being seeded last.

Hype can be dangerous. Hype can make the other team even more hungry. Hype can make a stumble seem like a head-on collision.

“You just recognize the fact you’re going to get just about everybody’s best shot,” said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who was the USC quarterbacks coach in 2005 when the Trojans had two Heisman winners, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, and still lost the national title game to Texas. “People are going to be prepared to play you, so in turn you got to be prepared to play… You had to come into work every day with a mindset that you’re prepared to play for a championship every Saturday.”

Sarkisian called high expectations an advantage, but the coach’s actions seems to tell a different story. As he told reporters this week about Saturday’s opponent, “I know Lane hates when I say this, but they’re probably the most talented team in our conference when you just look at their starting 22.”

That’s the ticket, coach. Take a page from the presidential playbook. Hype the other guy, not yourself. Because when you’re slayed by a giant, it doesn’t look as bad as when you’re taken down by a man your size.

But if you can be the giant-slayer, everyone will raise you up.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.