MULE': Preseason rankings are useless

Rankings are, of course, an inexact exercise. Preseason rankings, especially those concerning LSU, are virtually worthless.

Thoughts along those lines crossed my mind as I read last week that, for the first time, the Tigers are ranked second in the coaches' preseason poll.


Strictly speaking that is true. But you have to be careful about these things. Poll cats have a way of muddying what on the surface can seem like clear waters.


The Tigers never quite seem to live up to – or down to – the level that pollsters think they should. Neither the sportswriters nor the coaches ever get LSU right, which should worry those fans who are thrilled with the No. 2 recognition the Tigers have at the moment.


Think back to the 2003 season when LSU started ranked 13th and didn't reach the No. 1 spot in the coaches' poll until after winning the BCS championship game – and never did in the AP poll (where biased sportswriters fixed the ballots).


Long, long ago, in 1959, with LSU coming off a landslide national championship season, the Tigers were the overwhelming choice to cop a second No. 1 pennant. They were the preseason pick in the AP poll and practically every magazine and newspaper in the land. The coaches didn't have a preseason ranking then. But the voters were as wrong in 1959 as they were in 1958, when LSU was ranked 35th in the preseason.


Those '59 Tigers became a poster-child for how off pollsters can be. LSU finished third (when final votes were taken before bowls were played, otherwise LSU likely would have tumbled to the lower tier of the Top 10) with a 9-2 record – not bad, but not national timber either, especially after a dismal 21-0 thrashing at the hands of Ole Miss in a Sugar Bowl rematch.    


But why should anyone really care? It's a flawed system that really means little, except to the True Believers whose teams are ranked at the top.


Remember, as we enter the 10th season of the BCS system, that it was brought on in large part by dissatisfaction of the polls: the biases of sportswriters in the AP poll and the casual attention by coaches in their poll – who by their own admissions often don't even vote, letting underlings do it for them, at least until the end of the regular season.


How much credence should polls be given?


Consider why LSU and Oklahoma were paired in the 2003 title game? Because they each played one more game, each had one more victory, each on more demanding schedules than Southern Cal.


The cold, dispassionate calculations of seven computers made that argument over the yapping objections of some disgruntled sportswriters.


A convincing argument could have been made for either side, it was that close, but that's how football rankings should be arrived at: who did what against who. A quality team that puts its standing on the line against more quality opponents should get the edge.  


But, after the flap that left USC out of the championship round, BCS decided to tweak its computer compilations without perhaps the most important ingredient: strength of schedule.


What worked for LSU in 2003 failed for Auburn in 2004.


The Alabama Tigers beat four nine-victory opponents and four Top 10 teams, and trailed at halftime only twice.


For all that there was one obstacle Auburn could not overcome: The Tigers were ranked 17th in the preseason polls. Southern Cal and Oklahoma entered the season ranked No. 1 and No. 2 and neither ever lost. That, of course, shouldn't affect anything.


A preseason poll is strictly how a panel of voters think the rankings will look at the end of the season. There's nothing wrong with moving teams up or down, depending on how they look week-to-week. As a former voter, I can say nothing before the season influenced my ballot during or after the season.


Something must have changed because Auburn never was able to hurdle those early rankings – and maybe the Tigers didn't deserve to. Maybe USC or Oklahoma should have played for all the marbles. The voters and the computers, devoid of strength of schedule considerations, indicated they did.


The score of that championship game, however, hints that just maybe Auburn had an argument: USC 55, OU 19.


The point is, too much emotion and passion is expended on football polls. Just enjoy the teams and their games and let the rest take care of itself – like in that Sugar Bowl rematch when the defending national champions garnered a grand total of 74 yards offense.


In its eight decades as a showcase of college football, no Sugar Bowl crowd ever witnessed a more inept offensive performance.


Nobody was yelling "We're No. 1!'' after that one, and there was no exhausting debate afterward either.


LSU was also a No. 1 pick in 1972, Bert Jones's senior season, by (italics) Sports Illustrated (end italics). Those Tigers finished 9-2-1, making them part of a trivia question: what magazine made that selection that year?


The most popular answer by disappointed LSU fans was wrong – but funny: MAD.




Marty Mule' can be reached at

Tiger Blitz Top Stories