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2009 NCAA Football Preview: Punxsutawney Phil Steele at It Again

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2009 NCAA Football Preview: Punxsutawney Phil Steele at It Again
(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties 'cause it's cooooold out there today…”

“Well, it's Groundhog Day... again... and that must mean that we're up here at Gobbler's Knob waiting for the forecast from the world's most famous groundhog (sportswriter), Punxsutawney Phil, who's just about to tell us…”

…the Oregon Ducks didn’t make his top 25!  Where does Punxsutawney Phil Steele, “the seer of seers, prognosticator of prognosticators” have the Ducks rated then?  26?  27?

The Coaches Poll has Oregon at No. 14.  They land at No. 16 in the AP.  Sporting News places them at No. 7.  Jeff Sagarin has them at No. 10.  And Sports Illustrated tabbed the Ducks as BCS "Party Crashers," ranked them No. 11, and even put them on their regional cover.

In fact, at least 11 different prominent forecasters have the Ducks in their preseason top 10.  And according to the Massey Ratings, which takes an average of 28 different experts, Oregon sits at No. 10.

So, Punxsutawney Phil, what is it?  30?  31? Would you believe not even in his top 50?!?  And Phil only lists 50, so we’ll never know just how low he has them.

“That's right, woodchuck-chuckers…it's…GROUNDHOG DAY!”

Phil Steele has a tendency to do this every year it seems.  And by this I mean completely blow it on a handful of teams.

I’ll admit it, for the better part of a decade I’ve felt Phil could do no wrong, especially compared to Athlon’s, Lindy’s, and the like.  I’d buy them all.  And Phil would outperform them in every aspect—info, insight, stats, and picks.

Then I started noticing that he takes a few too many fliers and often misses.  And I started to realize that to beat out those mags isn’t saying a whole lot—the majority of them just want to be out there first, regardless if they make the right picks, or even have the right depth charts.

Since 2005, an average of 20 teams from Phil Steele’s top 50 have not received a single vote in the final Coaches Poll.

Also since 2005, 18 different teams have ended the season ranked in the Top 25, yet, were mistakenly omitted from Phil’s Top 50.

 

2005

Along with his various stats and formulas, Phil has always been big on returning starters.  In fact, it’s even on his Facebook page regarding his concerns for the 2009 Oregon Ducks having “just 9 returning starters.”

West Virginia, according to his 2005 mag, had the “fewest returning starters in the league.”  They missed out on his top 49 that year.  Yet, the Mountaineers somehow managed an 11-1 season and a No. 6 final ranking.

TCU, in 2005, "must rebuild the O-line," he wrote.  Not in Phil’s Top 49, yet finished 11-1 and #9 in the nation.

Notre Dame, always overhyped and overrated, right?  Not by Phil Steele.  Nowhere on his list for 2005, yet finished 9-3 and No. 11.

Conversely, Phil had Purdue as his No. 3 team in the land in 2005.  And to be fair, the Coaches had them at No. 16.  Final ranking, however: zero votes, finished 5-6.

He apparently swapped Purdue out with Tennessee that year.  The Vols were #3 in the Coaches poll yet No. 15 in Phil’s.  Final ranking: zero votes, finished 5-6.

 

2006

In 2006, he wrote that the Wisconsin Badgers have a new coach (Oregon also welcomes a new Head Coach, Chip Kelly, in 2009) and "only have 11 returning starters."  Not in Phil’s top 47 for the year, but Bret Bielema and his Badgers somehow manufactured a 12-1 season and a No. 5 final ranking.

Also in 2006, Rutgers, BYU, Wake Forest, and Oregon State, all found themselves without any love from Phil.  And all ended up ranked in the final top 25.

And while he failed to see those teams on the rise, he stuck to the tried and true—ranking Miami and Florida State at No. 7 and No. 10, respectively.  And yet with each school having just "11 starters back" both were out of the top 25 with 7-6 marks in 2006.

 

2007

Phil almost nailed the top two in 2007, placing USC No. 1 and LSU No. 2.  They would finish in reverse order, as the Tigers took home the National Title.

Kansas, on the other hand, was picked 5th in the Big 12 North by Phil, claiming the offensive line "unit is clearly less experienced."  He had them completely out of his top 50 and watched as they went 12-1, finishing at No. 7 in the nation.

Boston College, and new NFL darling, Matt Ryan, went 10-3 in 2006.  However, Phil felt that "breaking in a new coaching staff" might be too much.  He picked them last in the ACC Atlantic and obviously out of his entire top 50.  The Eagles finished 11-3 and sat at No. 11 at the end of 2007.

College, and new NFL darling, Matt Ryan, went 10-3 in 2006.  However, Phil felt that "breaking in a new coaching staff" might be too much.  He picked them last in the ACC Atlantic and obviously out of his entire top 50.  The Eagles finished 11-3 and sat at No. 11 at the end of 2007.

And while he did almost nail his 2007 Oregon Ducks pick (calling them a "darkhorse National Title contender," only to see them, and their lofty #2 ranking, crumble with the loss of QB Dennis Dixon) he also failed to see the rise of Cincinnati and Texas Tech.  Both teams would finish in the top 25 in 2007.

 

2008

2008 was one of Phil’s better years.  He picked Florida to win it all, and they did.  And everyone of the final top 15 were somewhere in his top 50 (although picking No. 3 Texas down at No. 15 was a bit off).

He also didn’t drink the proverbial kool-aid that everyone else did and pick Georgia.  He had them at No. 9 and they finished at No. 10.  However, he did fail to rank Cincinnati, Oregon State, Georgia Tech, or Michigan State in his preseason top 50.  And all four schools finished 2008 ranked somewhere in the top 25.

In fact, of Oregon State, he wrote that they have the "second fewest amount of returning starters in conference" and that "they won’t match last year’s nine win total."  They finished 9-4 and ranked No. 19.

Clemson, on the other hand, was a popular pick by most, with their "16 returning starters."  Phil had them all the way up at No. 5, higher than most.  But after firing Coach Tommy Bowden, the Tigers would rally to finish at 7-6.

As the year-by-year examples above can attest, Phil has missed on more than his share of teams.  But he’s not alone.

Of the 18 misses referenced above, 14 received some votes in the USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll, but only one was in the top 25.

Also, since 2005, there have been 25 different teams ranked in the Coaches Poll that were not represented in Phil Steele’s top 25 (an average of five per season).  Of all those 25 teams, the 2009 Oregon Ducks are the highest ranked team (at No. 14) to not even crack Phil’s top 50. 

Yes, the Ducks need to shore up some depth on both lines, but they also return some big time playmakers, including QB Jeremiah Masoli (who Phil tabs as the Pac-10’s 1st team QB, which is a bit odd and hard to reconcile with where he picked Oregon) and RB LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and led the conference with 17 TDs, all as a backup to Jeremiah Johnson.

And yes, Mike Bellotti is out as head coach, and in steps former Offensive Coordinator Chip Kelly.  The last time Oregon tried that, with Bellotti stepping in when Rich Brooks bolted for the NFL in 1995, the Ducks went from 9-4 to 9-3, as Bellotti began to build the foundation for Oregon as one of the Pac-10s’ premier programs.

And as Kelly takes over, with his former mentor now his Athletic Director, he looks to build on one of the nation’s best running games with a spread option passing game, adding several tall and speedy targets for Masoli to roll out and find.

In fact, while at New Hampshire, prior to coming to Oregon in 2007, Kelly’s teams were always among the nation’s leaders in passing, including in 2006 when his QB Ricky Santos threw for 3,125 yards, 29 TDs, and won the Walter Payton Award (Division I-AA’s Heisman equivalent).

Throw in the fact that in his only season of junior college ball, Masoli led his City College of San Francisco team to a national title, not on the ground, but through the air (by going 258-421 [61.3%] for 3,592 yards and 30 TD’s) and you have the makings of what could be an unstoppable offense.

Now what does all this mean?  Sure, forecasters are going to miss from time to time.  They all do.  To miss is one thing, but to go this far off the radar is quite another.

For Oregon to be as far south of the top 25 as Phil believes, lying somewhere between 51-120, they would need to finish, at best, 5-7.  This would mean they would have to lose road games at Boise St., UCLA, Arizona, and Stanford (or UW), as well as lose home games to Cal, USC, and Oregon State.  That seems a bit of a stretch.

To me, the schedule, and how that flows throughout the season should be first and foremost when forecasting records.  And Oregon’s 2009 schedule, which is quite favorable, couldn’t be the reason that Punxsutawney Phil neglected to include them in his top 50.

So, it must be due to his all-important "NCAA Team Experience Ratings," which has the Ducks ranked 103rd in the country for 2009.  And I know that this stat is "new and improved" this year, but wouldn’t it have to be?

Consider the fact that sitting at 119th in the nation (out of 120) last season were the Texas Longhorns.  Oh, and they were actually tied for 119th.  And with whom were they tied?  That's right, the 2008 National Champion Florida Gators.

Now Phil, you don’t know me and you’ve never even heard of me, but "I sure as heckfire remember you," and I hope next season when you come up to check for your shadow, or whatever it is you do, that I'm not left with six more weeks of research to prove you wrong.

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