So much for the forecast
What do we know after six weeks — the rough midpoint of the college football season?
We know USC is not the unstoppable juggernaut the media presented to us at the start of the 2012 campaign. We know that, barring some supernatural event, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith should run away with this year’s Heisman.
And that’s about it.
That’s part of the beauty of college football; the uncertainty of what is yet to come compels us to watch out of the fear of what we might miss if we turn off the TV for one Saturday afternoon.
Each preseason, the Associated Press releases a poll of the nation’s top sports writers ranking the top 25 teams in the country, presumably to project which teams are the best at that given moment. But because the polls are subject to human error, they sometimes fail to capture properly a team’s potential for success.
Midway through the 2012 campaign, let’s look at the teams the AP deemed the nation’s best before the season started, as well as a few others that were overlooked. Let’s see where those teams are now and try to make sense of where they might be headed.
We start, of course, with USC, which started the season ranked No. 1 by the AP. Surely the Trojans are breezing along on their way to a national title — right?
Wrong. USC stumbled in week three, falling to perennial thorn-in-the-side Stanford, and struggled this past week against Utah before pulling away with a 38-28 victory. The team’s offense, hyped as an unstoppable machine led by senior quarterback Matt Barkley, sits at 39th in the nation in passing yards, and the mighty Trojans have dropped to 11th in the AP poll and ninth in the eyes of the coaches. It seems unlikely that USC will regain its status as the prime threat to unseat the Southern Eastern Conference as national champs, with clashes against new Pac-12 favorite Oregon and Notre Dame looming on the horizon.
Two Big Ten teams have also disappointed mightily: Wisconsin, which started the season ranked 12th in both polls, and Michigan, which opened 2012 at No. 8.
Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball was supposed to be a strong Heisman candidate, but he has reached the 100-yard threshold just three times in six games as the Badgers have plummeted out of the rankings.
Meanwhile, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson has tossed more interceptions than touchdowns as Michigan has stumbled to a 3-2 record unbecoming of a preseason top-10 squad.
But the biggest train wreck of all has been Arkansas. Blame the distraction of the Bobby Petrino scandal or quarterback Tyler Wilson’s head injury if you want, but the fact remains that the Razorbacks have plunged from a No. 10 preseason ranking to a 2-4 record that includes a loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
The premature anointment of teams who have gone on to disappoint is not the only mistake the AP voters made before the start of the season. Several teams boasting strong 2012 play were not given enough love in the media leading up to the campaign.
West Virginia and Kansas State, ranked No. 11 and No. 22 respectively in preseason, sit at No. 5 and No. 6 after riding stellar play from their signal-callers. West Virginia’s Smith has tossed 24 touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 81.4 percent of his passes, and the Wildcats’ dual-threat quarterback Collin Klein has racked up 81 rushing yards per game and seven ground touchdowns.
South Carolina started the season ranked ninth. So although you could argue the Gamecocks were given plenty of preseason love, Steve Spurrier’s squad now sits at a startlingly high No. 3 thanks to an outstanding defensive line and a strong ground game led by running back Marcus Lattimore. If the Gamecocks survive consecutive road dates with LSU and Florida, they could emerge as the title favorites.
The Gators have risen from No. 23 all the way to No. 4 with the same formula as their SEC rivals: a fearsome defense and an outstanding tailback. Mike Gillislee averages 5.1 yards per carry against the rugged defenses of the SEC.
And No. 7 Notre Dame, unranked by the AP to start the season, may be the surprise of the college football world. “This is the year that Notre Dame returns to glory” has become a worn-out punchline in recent years, but this year it’s the truth. Senior linebacker Manti Te’o has been outstanding as the anchor of a defense that has allowed a total of 12 points the last three weeks. This could finally be the season in which Notre Dame reclaims its place among college football’s elite.
If you’ve been following along, you’ve noticed the absence so far of both of last year’s title game participants. SEC West powerhouses Alabama and LSU have been two of the nation’s more puzzling teams. The Crimson Tide sit at No. 1 with their 5-0 record, but the offense’s numbers have underwhelmed. The team’s scoring defensive statistics have been inflated by shutouts of Western Kentucky and the aforementioned Wilson-less Arkansas team.
The Tigers have dropped from a preseason No. 3 to No. 9 in the AP poll after a lackluster 14-6 loss to Florida. The Tigers’ offense has looked downright pitiful at times, but LSU still controls its destiny in the SEC West and will host the Tide Nov. 3 in a matchup that could determine a national championship favorite.
The problems posed by preseason rankings merely reinforce what we love most about college football: We just don’t know what’s going to happen from now until the crystal football is hoisted by the national champion on Jan. 7, 2013.
Because, after all, it takes a whole season of football to determine a national champion. That’s why the games are played on the field rather than in an AP reporter’s notebook.