Too low for comfort.
That brief sentiment captures the general consensus Georgia fans felt when the Associated Press released its preseason poll on Saturday.
With the Bulldogs coming in at the borderline position of No. 23 nationally, the red and black faithful should be understanding, but none too thrilled.
Saying Georgia went through a rough campaign has been the understatement of the offseason in Athens, and by all accounts most teams that finish 8-5 are deservedly placed in the mid-20s or worse.
But does this team honestly give off a similar vibe to last year’s squad? Not if you ask anyone in Athens—with the mild exception of our new athletic director and any other relatively new resident who has been trapped in Gainesville, Fla., for the past decade or longer.
The complete list of viable differences: experience, a renovated coaching staff, an easier schedule and a renewed sense of optimism amongst players and fans.
Saddling those significant changes with the doubts that accompany a No. 23 ranking seems questionable. At the very least, it seems like a basic, educated guess.
Then again, that’s what this media-driven process is: questionable.
Preseason polls have become a staple in the present-day college sports environment, one that lodges itself into the futures of collegiate teams based purely off the prognostications of select media members.
College football is most affected by this trend, a sport in which every loss is potentially fatal in the race for a national title—prompting even the most influential sports media provider, ESPN, to assert the phrase “Every Saturday matters” to advertise their gridiron coverage.
And ESPN gets it right in this instance, every Saturday does matter.
This past Saturday, when the preseason polls were released, is going to matter at some point.
Alabama, the all-but-unanimous No. 1 team, and other teams ranked at the top of the poll hold an enormous advantage over lower-ranked teams without even playing a down in 2010.
So when coaches around the country claim to be entering this season with a clean slate, it is not entirely true. And when coaches around the country tell their teams they control their own destinies, it is also not entirely true.
Picture this: Georgia is at a disadvantage to multiple non-SEC schools—No. 3 Boise State, No. 6 TCU, and even big-game veteran No. 2 Ohio State—when it comes to national championship odds or at-large bids for BCS games. Should SEC teams ever be at a disadvantage competitively on the national scene? Well, that is the reality of preseason polls.
The ultimate key for the Bulldogs: Do Not Lose.
As was illustrated by BCS guru Brad Edwards, in the past 50 years 16 one-loss teams have gone on to win national championships. Of those 16 teams, only one squad was ranked outside of the top eight in the preseason AP Poll.
Still think the AP Poll doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things? Ask the 2007 undefeated Boise State team, who started outside the rankings only to be denied a shot at a national title.
But Boise State competes in the WAC, that could never happen to an SEC school, right? Tommy Tuberville and his undefeated 2004 Auburn squad beg to differ—a no-loss SEC school that was left out of the championship game following its No. 17 preseason ranking.
It has happened before, and it will happen again to a team in 2010.
Here’s the simple conclusion: Let the media have their coveted preseason polls and let fans look too far into them for the weeks leading up the season.
Then, after the first week of games, trash the preseason prognostications and start from scratch. Problem solved and Mark Richt could rest a little easier the night after the team’s first loss, a loss that would weigh no heavier on the No. 23 team as the No. 1 team.
Richt was quoted earlier this weekend as saying, “I’m thankful we’re ranked. It’s good to be ranked. I hope we play well enough to move up. That’s the plan.”
Reading-between-the-lines translation: “Dammit, this is going to be tough.”
If Richt feels as most do about the implications preseason polls place on lower-ranked programs, then he should not sugarcoat those words with the usual media-wary comments—he should just say it like it is.
They are just too dumb for comfort.
(This article was originally published in The Red & Black newspaper.)