In College Football, Polls and Perception Matter

Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn and college football and other subjects in his latest column.

Polls, which started as nothing more than a way to boost interest, have become a part of the fabric of college athletics. In most sports, they remain basically meaningless. They play no role in selecting the field for the NCAA basketball tournament. They'll play no role in deciding who plays in baseball regionals.

But college football is another matter.

Because there is no championship tournament, polls are of paramount importance. For the next three months, there'll be one preseason poll after another. Coaches will quickly say that they don't matter, that the only polls that matter are at the end of the season.

In a way they are right. And in a way they aren't. The polls used to determine who plays for or claims national championships build on one another. Where you start has a definite impact on how difficult it is to get to the top.

Preseason polls, of course, are based on nothing more than perception. They are only guesses, sometimes educated and sometimes not. It truly doesn't matter if Athlon, in its effort to sell magazines, says Alabama will be No. 16 and Auburn No. 21 just like it didn't matter when The Sporting News said Auburn would win the 2003 national championship.

But what those polls do is give some insight into the way people who will vote in the polls that matter might think. And that's interesting to observe.

The first thing you see is that there are certain teams that are going to be highly ranked until they prove over a long period of time they don't deserve it.

USC is the current favorite. It doesn't matter that the Trojans lost most of their coaching staff, doesn't matter what players are gone. They are viewed as all but unbeatable.

There are others who are almost always going to be highly ranked in the preseason. You know who they are. And therein lies the problem.

Reporters and sportscasters who cover college football on a national basis create perceptions that are often inaccurate because they dwell on the teams they know most about.

I'm certainly not here to question their integrity. That's a natural tendency, one that I am surely guilty of myself. And that brings us to Auburn.

I wonder how many of those folks are truly aware of Stanley McClover and Quentin Groves. I wonder how many of them are aware that Auburn will field one of the faster defenses ever to line up in the SEC. I wonder how many of them have a real understanding of the talent Auburn has at wide receiver or on the offensive line.

Ben Obomanu, who will be a senior this fall for the Tigers, should be one of the better receivers in the SEC.

If Miami, USC or a handful of others had produced four first-round draft choices, the spin would have been that those players were proof of how strong those programs are. The spin for Auburn is that there is no way for the Tigers can recover from losing those players.

It would obviously be foolish to predict Auburn will go 13-0 again. It would be foolish to predict any team in the SEC would go 13-0 in any given season. The competition is too fierce.

But the idea that Auburn caught lightning in a bottle is simply wrong. Last season was about the program, not about four players. Auburn has won nine or more games in three of the past five seasons. In the SEC, only Georgia, Tennessee and LSU can match that.

Auburn is going to be good for a while. How good? That depends on the variables that come into play in every season of college football.

Moving on…

Wild races are the norm in SEC baseball, but this season could be the wildest finish yet.

Heading into the last weekend of the regular season, 11 teams are still in the race for the eight spots in the SEC Tournament. The overall championship race and championship races in both divisions are far from decided.

Losing two of three at Georgia was a big blow for Auburn. That left the Tigers in precarious position going into their weekend series against Alabama. The bottom line: They have to win one more game than Arkansas and Mississippi State and at least as many as Georgia to get into the tournament.

Of course, getting into the SEC Tournament might not end up being that important. Some projections say the SEC will have 10 teams in regionals…

Last week's column on Toney Douglas and his father sparked a mini-flood of email. Here is one:

"Hey, Marshall. Why don't you get it right? Tony's dad was talking about support from the coaching staff. You made it sound like he was criticizing players. Tell it like it is, please."

Here are Harry Douglas' exact words, transcribed off the tape of the press conference: "Can you imagine what kind of kid this kid would be with the support around him? To me, I think Toney underachieved in some things simply because he wasn't given the opportunity to do the things I know he could have done. We'll never know what he could have done as a freshman. Chris Jackson averaged 30 points coming in here as a freshman. I'd put my money Toney would have done the same thing if he'd had the support."

And another email:

"Maybe Toney just needs to move on to the NBA or to another team. If he's not about the team and putting the team first, we don't need him."

Fact is, according to Auburn coach Jeff Lebo and his teammates, Douglas is very much a team player. He's done nothing wrong. Should he be held accountable for what his father said? I don't think so.

Until next time…


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