This time of year, preseason polls are a dime a dozen, all of them ultimately irrelevant when it comes to determining who'll actually play for the BCS championship in January. All that is, except for one: Though its relevant days may be numbered, for now the lone exception remains the USA Today Coaches' Poll, a survey of 59 head coaches (or whichever member of their staff is conscripted to fill out their ballot) that makes up one-third of the Bowl Championship Series formula for deciding who's No. 1, who's No. 2 and who's left out in the cold at season's end.
Thursday, the first edition for 2012 was brought down from the mountain top on two stone tablets, bearing the official decree that … drumroll, please …
LSU is Number One. By the slimmest of possible margins over the defending champs: The Tigers clipped Alabama for the top spot by a whopping margin of four points, 1,403 to 1,399, and only beat out No. 3 USC by 15 points – or, in other words, by .0008 percent of the 19,175 points allocated in the entire poll. In fact, both Alabama (20) and USC (19) had more first-place votes than LSU (18). Can we call it a tie?
Although the Tigers have been mainstays at or near the top of the polls for most of the last decade – they spent eleven consecutive weeks on top of both the AP and Coaches' polls last year before getting bounced by 'Bama in the BCS Championship Game – this fall will be the first time any LSU team opens the season at No. 1 in either major poll since the defending national champions had the honor in 1959.
Conference wars. The coaches wholeheartedly embraced the SEC's ongoing trolling of the rest of the country, not only reserving the top two spots for the South, but also dropping Georgia at No. 6, South Carolina at No. 9 and Arkansas at No. 10, thereby giving the conference fully half of the top ten. The only other league with more than one team in that group in the Pac-12, with two.
Further down, only two other SEC schools made the cut at all, Florida at No. 23 and Auburn at No. 25, both by the skin of their teeth. Ironically, given the stereotypes of win-at-all-costs fanaticism in the SEC and vigilant defense of the moral high ground in the Big Ten, at least one and perhaps both of those spots come by virtue of NCAA sanctions at perennial Big Ten contenders: Ohio State and Penn State are both serving penalties this year for major violations, and are therefore ineligible for the poll regardless of their performance. (The same rule kept USC out of the rankings the past two seasons, and also applies this year to North Carolina.) In other polls this summer, the Buckeyes are consistently projected in the top ten in their first season under new head coach Urban Meyer.
With the spot that would have been occupied by Ohio State thus occupied by Auburn instead, the SEC leads all comers with seven teams in the top twenty-five. Pound-for-pound, though, the heaviest hitter is the Big 12, which places six teams in the poll at large – 60 percent of its membership, as opposed to the SEC's 50 percent. Altogether, 19 of the 24 teams in those two conferences received at least one vote, excluding only Iowa State and Kansas in the Big 12 and Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Kentucky in the SEC.
New Day Risin'. Predictably, the biggest leaps of faith relative to last year's finish are on No. 6 Georgia (No. 20 in the final poll of 2011) and No. 7 Florida State (up from No. 23), both of which have been widely pegged this summer as potential BCS darkhorses behind veteran quarterbacks and blue-chip defenses that return the vast majority of starters from units that finished in the top five nationally. Now, to cut and paste a phrase from every preseason assessment of Georgia or Florida State over the past five years, they just have to turn those paper advantages into actual wins.
The other major boost is for Texas, unranked at the end of the end of 2011 for the second year in a row, which will begin the new season at No. 15 on the very sound reasoning that the Longhorns have been just a little too quiet down there.
Free Fallin'.Also predictably, the biggest plunge from the final poll of 2011 is at Oklahoma State, which is officially entering rebuilding mode off arguably the two best seasons in school history. In one swoop, the Cowboys will be replacing a prolific, 28-year-old All-American at quarterback, Brandon Weeden, with an 18-year-old true freshman, Wes Lunt, who has been through a single spring practice session, as well as All-Americans at wide receiver, on the offensive line and in the secondary. Like all teams not ranked No. 1, they'll interpret their fall from No. 3 in January to No. 19 in August as a sign of disrespect. But if the pollsters didn't respect the program Mike Gundy has built, with that kind of attrition, they wouldn't have ranked the Cowboys at all.
Ditto the programs at Stanford and Boise State, which drop from the top ten to No. 18 and No. 22, respectively, in the wake of massive attrition from historic runs under their own dearly departed quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Kellen Moore. With TCU's leap from the Mountain West to the Big 12, Boise and No. 24 Notre Dame are the only teams anywhere in the poll from outside of one of the "Big Six" conferences with automatic bids to a BCS bowl.
Yes, Steve Spurrier had a ballot. No, it did not include the Ball Coach's traditional nod to Duke. Outliers that did receive at least one vote, however, included Florida International, Northern Illinois and four teams (South Florida, Central Florida, Tennessee and Texas Tech) that finished 2011 with losing records.