In the latest sign that the 2012 college football season really is just around the corner -- truly, finally, blessedly -- Sports Illustrated's annual season preview issue is on newsstands now (as the saying goes), and once again the magazine is featuring five regional covers with a different quarterback on each one--AJ McCarron of Alabama, Matt Barkley of USC, Denard Robinson of Michigan, Geno Smith of West Virginia, and (for a second straight season) Landry Jones of Oklahoma.
This is a good thing for these quarterbacks and their respective programs, right? National publicity? Increased Heisman hype? Possibly even a bump in the mind of pollsters? Right?
Wrong. Very wrong. Sports Illustrated has been issuing their regional covers since 2005 (when they debuted with shots of Texas's Vince Young, Florida's Chris Leak, and USC's Reggie Bush), and heading into the 2011 season a whopping 17 of the 27 teams featured on one of those covers had gone on to endure a disappointing season--a list that includes such noted flops as 2007 Michigan, 2009 Ole Miss, 2010 Texas, and more. The numbers from 2007 on were even worse: only 5 of 18 teams avoided a disappointing year. And not one of the six teams anointed SI's preseason No. 1 went on to win the national championship.
So what about 2011? Let's take it team-by-team, with the team's representative in parentheses:
Alabama (RB Trent Richardson): The Tide came within one Oklahoma State field goal in Ames of falling victim to the curse no matter how many other games they might have won, unless you think that finishing runner-up in their own division would have counted as a good year for the most-hyped team of Nick Saban's Tuscaloosa tenure. But the Tide's redemption in the BCS title game obviously forgave them the sin of losing to LSU at home, and then some. They became the first SI preseason No. 1 to win a crystal football in the regional-cover "era." Happy? Oh yeah.
Stanford (QB Andrew Luck): The Cardinal won 11 games for the second straight regular season, earned a second straight BCS berth, and won games against the heavy-hitting likes of USC, Notre Dame and Washington--all very heady stuff for a program like Stanford, especially in its first year post-Jim Harbaugh. But this was also the swan song for Luck and a half-dozen other Cardinal stars, and their heavy home defeat to hated Oregon meant it came without a much-anticipated Pac-12 (or even divisional) title; their overtime Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State meant their final record was actually a one-game step backward from 2010. Luck missed out on the Heisman, too, after Robert Griffin III stormed to the award. Happy? Half-credit.
Oklahoma (QB Landry Jones): The AP's preseason No. 1 started 6-0, then dropped three of their final six games -- including a loss as four-touchdown home favorites over Texas Tech and a 44-10 walloping at rivals Oklahoma State -- to finish their season in Phoenix for a second straight year ... only this time, in the Insight Bowl instead of the Fiesta. As for Jones, a late-season swoon put a serious damper on his Heisman prospects and draft stock. Happy? Not close.
Nebraska (DT Jared Crick): The Huskers entered their inaugural Big Ten season as the conference favorites, but were quickly replaced in that role by Wisconsin after the Badgers bludgeoned Nebraska 48-17 at Camp Randall. A shocking home loss to Northwestern, blowout loss at Michigan, and meek bowl surrender to South Carolina were still to come, too. It was an unfortunate season for Crick, too; the projected all-American tore a pectoral muscle and saw his Nebraska career end in mid-October. Happy? Uh, no.
South Carolina (WR Alshon Jeffery): No one in Columbia is turning their noses up at an 11-2 season, but it still wasn't the year most Gamecock fans were expecting, especially after their early-season win at Georgia. A home upset loss to Auburn (and a blowout defeat at Arkansas) cost them the East division title, Marcus Lattimore saw his potential Heisman campaign derailed by a torn ACL, and Stephen Garcia's off-field issues and eventual dismissal turned Steve Spurrier's "Cock n' Fire" offense into an unwatchable slog for much of the season. As for Jeffery, the offensive regression hurt him most of all. After All-American honors in 2010, he failed to even make second-team All-SEC. Happy? We'll be generous and give the Gamecocks half-credit for ending the season with wins over Clemson and in the bowl game.
FINAL VERDICT: With the halves, that's a total of 3 out of 5 teams to have suffered disappointing seasons, and 3 out of the 5 players featured who unquestionably did not live up to their billing. Even accounting for Alabama's national championship, none of the five teams won a conference title or even a divisional title--going back to 2009, only one of the last 13 teams to appear on an SI regional cover have done so.
That brings the overall tally since 2005 to 20 out of 32 teams who have gone on to disappointing seasons, or 63 percent. That's high enough that we have no problem reasserting our claim from 2011 that yes, these SI covers are cursed.
But if that curse continues operating at that 60 percent clip, which three teams from 2012 are due to fall short of expectations? Sorry, Wolverine fans, but Michigan is an easy choice with its difficult schedule, major losses along the line of scrimmage, and potential over-reliance on Robinson. Oklahoma hasn't played like a national title contender since 2008 and the passing game is something of a question mark. And expectations have been set so high for Barkley and the Trojans that a minor comedown might be inevitable--especially for a team with two potential games on tap against Chip Kelly's unflappable Ducks.
Still, the Tide and Mountaineers should consider themselves warned, too. After seven solid years of evidence of the curse, it's not something we'd advise any team to take lightly.
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