We flock to them like pilgrims.
College football spring games are an important annual celebration of the quasi-halfway mark between the end of college football and the beginning of a new season. In search of both answers to last year's failures and validation of this year's successful recruiting classes, fans hold spring games dear to their hearts.
Just as spring signifies rebirth, renewal and the end (hopefully) of a long, cold winter, a spring game connects the end of one season to the beginning of another. Yet how many spring games really shed insight into how a team will fare in the fall?
And more importantly, how do spring games shape college football preseason rankings?
Consider this: USC was the Associated Press' preseason No. 1 team prior to the beginning of the 2012 season. The Trojans looked very, very good in their spring game, particularly the defense—I noted the Trojans' outstanding defensive play here. USC finished 2012 with a 7-6 record and its defense was largely blamed for the losses.
Did the Trojans' performance in their spring game affect their 2012 preseason ranking? The defense was the sore point of 2012's season so what appeared to be improvement may have helped shape the perception of USC. But the return of quarterback Matt Barkley—many thought he would forego his senior year and declare for the NFL—may have started the tipping of the scales in USC's favor.
There were, however, signs of a rush to judgment after USC's spring game.
The Trojans' 2012 spring game was a "no tackle" scrimmage. How can analysts evaluate a team with that caveat? As it turns out, the media was incorrect in their preseason analysis of USC last year.
Oregon has a policy of not allowing the public or media to watch spring practices so the Ducks' 2012 spring game was the first opportunity for a glimpse of what life after quarterback Darron Thomas would look like. Marcus Mariota's performance in the spring game was off the charts and that certainly helped bolster Oregon's perception among pollsters—Oregon was ranked No. 5 in the AP preseason polls.
Notre Dame had a very uninspiring spring game last year largely due to the pedestrian performances of two quarterbacks, Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees. The Fighting Irish's defense was the star of the game but did the defense look great because of the lack of fire in the offense? Pollsters didn't even bother to put Notre Dame in their Top 25 preseason rankings (the Irish were ranked No. 26) yet the team would finish the regular season at No. 1 with a 12-0 record.
The problem with using spring games as spring boards is that they rarely offer a complete insight into what a team will look like four months later. Incoming freshmen cannot participate in spring games if they haven't enrolled early, and their contributions can make a difference in projecting a team's prowess.
Defensive end Devonte Fields didn't enroll at TCU until July 31, 2012 but five months later was named the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year (AP). Had Fields played in the Horned Frogs' spring game, would his obvious talent have bumped up TCU's No. 20 preseason ranking?
In the end, it didn't matter—TCU finished the season out of the AP's Top 25 rankings.
And that's probably why fans generally abhor preseason rankings. The rankings are based on nothing but conjecture. Alabama (No. 2 preseason) lost six defensive starters in 2012, yet its total defense was ranked first at the end of the 2012 season. Alabama also won the 2012 BCS Championship.
In reality, spring games are nothing but glorified scrimmages that can elicit surges in season ticket renewals. They serve as a catharsis for football-starved fans who just want to sit in the bleachers under the sun and watch a contact sport. Spring games may have some impact on preseason rankings but its force is likely minimal.
A team's reputation, number of returning starters, strength (or lack of) of schedule, injuries at key positions and how the team finished at the end of the previous season are likely the most important factors in preseason rankings. The team's fall camp is also of utmost importance.
Fall camp is the time where incoming freshmen can finally practice, starting quarterbacks are named to teams without a returning starter and academic ineligibility can significantly reduce a projected roster of incoming freshmen. Fall camp is also the time when injuries can suddenly become season-enders.
USC had 20 players too injured to play in its spring game last Saturday—of those 20 injured, all but one (receiver George Farmer) are expected to return to fall camp. That's a four-month window to rehab injuries. If those same 20 players had been injured in August, would they have been healthy enough to play 12 games this season?
Most likely not.
And that's why fall camp—not spring games—impacts a team's place more in the preseason rankings.
As it should be...
...Until preseason rankings finally disappear and take their rightful place as fodder.