The biggest movie of the summer has just opened: The Dark Knight, a film that highlights the struggle between order, symbolized by Batman, and chaos, symbolized by the Joker.
The Joker definitely won out during the 2007 college football season. We had top teams like Michigan and Louisville sink in the first half and relative unknowns in Missouri and Kansas rise towards the end. We also had the Curse of Being No. 2 and the first two-loss champion since champions have been named after the bowl season.
Some have wondered if last season was a temporary thing or the start of a new era of parity. Before we can answer that question, we have to figure out why last season felt so chaotic.
No Dominant Team
There was not one single dominant team the whole year. It looked for a while like Oregon might step up and be that team, but when Dennis Dixon went down, so did the Ducks.
College football always feels more orderly when a couple of teams are at the top all year. All kinds of craziness can go on underneath them, but as long as we know a couple titans will blow out their opponents, it seems much more manageable.
That sense of order goes right out the window when USC loses to Stanford and LSU loses to Arkansas and Kentucky, rather than Florida and Auburn.
The schedule worked out perfectly for the much of the insanity to happen too.
That is especially evident with the No. 2 curse. If Boston College plays Florida State earlier in the year, the Eagles never get to No. 2. If USF plays Rutgers earlier in the year, the Bulls never get to No. 2. I think you get the idea.
Another example is with teams and weak schedules. Kansas played only one team that was ranked when bowl invitations went out—No. 6 Missouri—and lost. That was good enough to get into the Orange Bowl.
Hawaii played only one team that was ranked when bowl invitations went out—No. 24 Boise State—and that was good enough to get into the Sugar Bowl.
USC played only one team that was ranked when bowl invitations went out—No. 11 Arizona State—though it did get Oregon with a healthy Dixon. That was good enough to win the Pac-10 and go to the Rose Bowl, despite the epic upset loss to Stanford.
Those are all anomalies that don't normally happen.
Rapidly Changing Expectations
If you look at top of the preseason poll and the final poll, you'd never know that the season was considered one of chaos. Seven of the preseason top 10 were in the final poll. Of the remaining three, two fell to the teens and one fell out of the top 25.
For reference, six of 2006's preseason top 10 were in the final top 10, with the other four falling back to the teens. In 2005, only five of the preseason top 10 made the final top 10, with two falling to the teens, one to the twenties, and two falling out altogether.
Chris Fowler published an article around midseason last October about the travails of the pollsters. It does a good job crystallizing the tumult that occurred between the relatively tame differences of the first and final polls.
In short, a lot goes back to the fact that road teams won a lot more often than they should have.
So What About 2008?
The headline of Fowler's piece is "Inconsistent teams creating rankings chaos." If you look at the quarterbacks of many of the top teams from the 2007 preseason poll, you can see why.
USC, Virginia Tech, Michigan, West Virginia, UCLA, and Cal had injuries. LSU, Ohio State, and Wisconsin had first year starters. Oklahoma didn't just have a first year starter, but a freshman starter. Texas' starter had a sophomore slump behind a suspect line. Florida was one school without a question mark behind center, but it had plenty of them on the other side of the ball.
Fast forward a year and look at the early preseason consensus for 2008. Of the top 10, only USC and LSU are breaking in a new starter. Expand it to the top 20, and that adds only Auburn, Wisconsin, and Penn State. Injuries will happen, of course, but there's no way to count those yet.
Basically, all of this decade's powers are ready to roll. Only LSU, and to a lesser extent, USC, aren't directly building on last year with roughly the same cast.
Another cause of instability in 2007 was the emergence of programs that had not been to the top either recently or at all. USF fell after not knowing how to deal with soaring, Kansas lost the only big game of its regular season, and Missouri couldn't beat Oklahoma.
Those teams have tasted the sky and in theory should be able to better handle its intoxicating effects. All three will have the chance to prove this true or untrue, especially when Kansas takes a trip down to Tampa to play the Bulls.
A Historical Note
Being a native Floridian, I tend to relate things to hurricanes.
Hurricanes are cyclical phenomena, gradually changing from less to more to less frequent. As with everything that is cyclical, you sometimes end up with a big peak or big valley if things align properly.
The 2005 season was horrifically bad, and many predicted it would usher in a new era of megastorms that would ravage the U.S. for years to come. Instead, the 2006 and 2007 seasons were relatively quiet, and (knock on wood) 2008 has been quiet thus far too. Things even out and regress to the mean.
College football is also a cyclical thing. Powers come and go, some more quickly than others, and every now and then you get a peak or a valley. The 2007 season was a valley for powers being able to control the sport, and some have speculated that it ushered in a new era of parity and craziness in the polls.
A lot of things had to come together to enable 2007 to play out the way it did. The last time we had no one finish the year undefeated was 2003. In 2004, there were no fewer than five undefeated teams before the bowls. Things took a swing in the opposite direction to even out the prior year.
That is exactly what will happen in 2008. We will see at least one BCS conference champ go undefeated, if not more. We may not even see a BCS conference champ with two losses, depending on how the ACC works itself out. BYU or maybe Utah could go unbeaten in the MWC, and Boise State or Fresno State could do the same in the WAC.
The 2007 BCS bowls were a picture of craziness: Boise State upset Oklahoma, Florida shocked everyone by beating Ohio State by 27, and Wake Forest actually made the Orange Bowl. It almost symbolically ushered in the craziness that was the 2007 regular season.
The 2008 BCS bowls were completely different. The better team in four of the five bowls flexed its muscles and won in impressive fashion. I believe that they symbolically paved the way for a 2008 where the insanity stops.
Batman has caught the Joker, and order will be restored.