So here’s what I don’t get. Stewart Mandel thinks that this is going to be an open season, a la 2007. His reasoning, which I think is correct, is that the usual contenders – Alabama, Florida, and Texas – are all replacing a lot of talent and USC has major problems of its own. Thus, without a dominant team, we ought to expect an increase in upsets and one or more teams coming from nowhere to seriously contend for the national title.
So when Sports Illustrated picks its top ten, what does it do?
Its top eight consists of eight teams that made BCS bowls last year. The top ten is rounded out by two teams that were most impressive in major second tier bowl games. In other words, SI is predicting stasis in a season in which it’s reasonable to expect upheaval. (Note: I recognize that Mandel probably didn’t prepare the SI rankings by himself, so I’m not criticizing him specifically. In fact, I think I’m saying that his magazine should listen to him more. To quote Karl Stromberg from The Spy Who Loved Me, detente indeed.)
SI certainly isn’t stepping out on a limb with its picks. Their top ten hews fairly close to the preseason consensus, with the exception that SI isn’t jumping on the Oklahoma bandwagon. Is it bravery for other to pick Oklahoma in the top ten after an 8-5 season or is it unimaginative for one’s outsider to be a top five program that happened to have an injury-marred, disappointing season in 2009? I could be swayed either way. Still, shouldn’t they take a risk on somebody? Stassen measures the rankings of ten different outfits. Those ten outfits have collectively given their 100 top ten spots to 14 teams: the ten SI teams, plus Wisconsin, Penn State, USC, and Miami. I don’t remember a season in which prognosticators have been so risk-averse.
Interestingly, SI has staked out the position that Florida will be a little down this year (by their standards), whereas the two pure numbers-based predictions in Stassen’s database – Football Outsiders and Compughter – both have the Gators at #2. The humans probably put more importance on Urban Meyer’s “should I stay or should I go” dance, as well as the fact that Charlie Strong is now at Louisville. The computers see a roster stacked with talent at a program that has been the best in the nation over the past four years and say “reload.”
It’s also interesting to me that Georgia Tech has not received a single top ten nod from a publication. Of the ten BCS participants from 2009, SI ranks eight of then as its top eight. Cincinnati doesn’t appear in anyone’s top twenty for the obvious reason that Brian Kelly moved on to Notre Dame. The Jackets, on the other hand, return 14 starters from a team that won the ACC. They have eight starters back on defense and upgraded the defensive coordinator. They also have Paul Johnson running an offense that hasn’t yet been solved (except in bowl games). So why are the Jackets treated differently than other, similarly situated teams? I have a few potential explanations:
1. Despite its repeated success, national pundits still view the Johnson offense as being primitive. (I don’t buy this one. Numbers are numbers.)
2. Tech won a bunch of close games last year, so they weren’t as good as their record. (I do buy this one, but most writers are fooled by a gaudy record.)
3. The ACC isn’t worthy of a top ranking. (Probably not true because Virginia Tech is in a lot of top tens.)
4. The ACC Coastal is stacked this year, so Tech will have a hard time putting up a good record. (Again, if this is true, then why all the love for Virginia Tech?)
5. Inertia. Writers are used to seeing Virginia Tech win the ACC, so they reflexively put the Hokies in their top tens as the ACC representative. Georgia Tech is a new participant on the scene, so they are waiting to see if last year proves to be a fluke, a la Wake Forest in 2006. I suppose that this year will answer this question, but it seems close enough for me that someone should be putting the Jackets in a top ten.