Poll Sitters

Take a preseason college football poll and five dollars into a Starbucks and you can get a cafe latte grande with enough loose change to rattle the ubiquitous tip jar.

That play on a time-honored adage probably says more about our obsession with coffee than it does the value of college football polls. In fact the real payoff with both comes later. The gourmet coffee provides roughly the same caffeine boost as the dime cup of coffee circa 1962 did. Likewise college polls have always had hidden value that isn't fully realized until the regular season unfolds.

For instance: A team that is ranked No. 1 before the season begins has a much better chance of winning a national championship with an undefeated record than a team with preseason ranking of No. 10 that posts a perfect run. Of course that's the problem with being the only major college sport that doesn't use a playoff to determine a true champion.

However that's a subject for another time. Today we're looking at the recently released Power 16 as published in the Aug. 27 edition of ESPN The Magazine. Unlike the polls factored into the BCS formula, it carries no official significance but it does provide insight into the challenge that awaits Tennessee this fall.

To begin with the Vols are not among its members. Not that's necessarily a bad thing. Tennessee teams under Phillip Fulmer have generally responded well to the "no respect" motivation. When they were ranked No. 2 in 2002 preseason polls they fell out of the bottom of the top 25. When they weren't ranked in the top 10 in 1998 preseason rankings they won the national title.

Similarly they have a disturbing recent history of performing poorly in big home games while pulling off major upsets on the road. Example: They've won the last two road games in Athens, Ga., but have lost the last three games against the Bulldogs in Knoxville. They are 2-1 the last three games against Florida in The Swamp and 1-2 in the last three games against the Gators on The Hill. In 2002, they were dominated by Miami in a nationally televised game at Neyland Stadium, but ended the Canes' six-year home winning streak in Miami the next season.

Pit Fulmer's troops against the world and they respond like world beaters. Ask them to defend their home turf against the invading Dores and they become instantly ordinary. That could be good news for the season opener except for one between-the-lines factor that can be found in ESPN's rankings.

Tennessee is highlighted under key game for the No. 14 ranked Golden Bears, as well as No. 8 Florida and No. 11 Georgia. You don't have to go far outside the Power 16 to find UT is probably the key game for Arkansas, along with LSU, and Alabama, along with Auburn and South Carolina along with Georgia. And there can be no doubt that Tennessee is the key game every year for Kentucky and Vandy.

Clearly a case can be made that Tennessee is the key game for eight of its 12 opponents this season. The Vols may well be up to that daunting challenge, but don't expect them to catch anyone sleeping.

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