Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hokie Football: Don't Believe the Preseason Hype

With the AP Preseason Polls just weeks away from being released, I couldn't help but indulge in a piece written over at CollegeFootballNews.com by columnist Richard Cirminiello, who in his article entitled, "Don't Believe the (Preseason) Hype", offers insight into which programs around the country in recent years have been over- or under-hyped based on their placement in the AP Preseason poll heading into the season. The main premise surrouding Ciriminiello's article revolves around the big question:
Which teams are the most consistently overrated (and underrated) by the preseason polls?
When actually addressing the question, however, one may find it a bit harder than usual to put aside any biases against a certain program, select a list of teams, and then back up their answer with a significant amount of research and analysis to further their claim.

That's where Cirminiello comes in, addressing the issue using a strict formula and composite score to judge each program without a tainted eye. In fact, here is what he describes as the main criteria to base his formula upon:
For this exercise, we’ve sampled AP rankings from the last 35 years and are only evaluating schools that have been recognized in 10 or more preseason polls. Trying to cull some meaning out of, say, Kansas, Indiana or any other school that makes a once-every-decade cameo in summer rankings would prove fruitless.
And Ciriminiello's individual composite score for each school is as follows:
Composite score represents the average annual number of spots a school's final ranking fell below its preseason ranking since 1971.
Now of the 31 teams Ciriminiello analyzed, Virginia Tech ranked 29th on the list of the teams considered to be the most overrated in college football over the past 35 years, meaning over the studied time-period, the average post-season ranking to pre-season ranking was lower in difference for Virginia Tech than 28 of the other programs. This ranking for the Hokies was just two spots behind the overall leader considered by Ciriminiello's formula as the must underrated team in college football history -- the Miami Hurricanes, whose program posted a composite score of -2.41, as opposed to Tech's score of -2.70.

Moving along the topic however, in looking back on last year, several teams entered the preseason polls being considered 'underrated', as they weren't making too much of a splash on the college scene -- with the main exception being USC at #1. No matter how you looked at it, aside from USC fans, many football followers in general put the Trojans in that 'overrated' category from the season's beginning to end, especially after seeing the Trojans show signs of weakness against conference opponents Oregon, Arizona State, and Washington, as well as seeing them literally push their way to a controversial overtime victory in South Bend.

The ultimate fact of the matter was despite the majority of college football fans recognizing USC's tandem of Reggie Bush and LenDale White as an unstoppable duo on the ground, other aspects of the team (primarily their defense), weren't thought of as highly, and the college football world watched in January as their respective flaws were exploited by the Texas Longhorns in the national title game.

Contrary to programs like USC, however, as the season progressed, several teams saw their underrated preseason status change for the better, grabbing the attention of college football fans by storm, with one clear-cut example of this being the Virginia Tech Hokies.

Entering the 2005 season ranked eighth in the AP Preseason Polls, Virginia Tech raced to an 8-0 start, earning a ranking as high as third in the nation, unfortunately however, everything for Virginia Tech came to a screeching halt following the university's 20-point loss to longtime rival Miami in a defeat that would go down as one of, if not the most devastating of all Hokie setbacks.

With that being said however, writing about the event caused me to reminisce. It takes great pains every time to take a minute and think about such a promising season and ask the question, "What could have been?"
- Had Virginia Tech won, would they have played better against Florida State, and gone into Bowl Season with a perfect record?
- Had Virginia Tech won, could Texas or USC have crumbled under the pressure of maintaining perfection and done the unthinkable -- actually drop a game?
The boundaries for queries are limitless, and though those questions pertain to a scenario that has no significance now, I still look back and try not to remember the season that ‘Could Have Been’ for VT, as well as the events that led to the downfall. Unfortunately though, I remember it a bit too well…

Virginia Tech’s success all began by the resurgence of a humble-mannered, well-behaved (aside from the Morgantown flip) Marcus Vick, who returning off a one-year suspension, got the ball rolling early for the Hokies with a crucial win over N.C. State and their star-studded defensive line. This victory was followed by a handful of dominant victories that came off as no surprise, unlike Vick’s success under center, whose flashes of brilliance on the field seemed reminiscent of his older brother. With everything going well heading into the later half of the season, the Hokies saw their winning streak unfold to eight consecutive games, causing many to take notice.

Perhaps no rise in the amount of publicity towards a program compared to that of VT’s in '05, and this was all arranged with a mid-season climax in mind when Larry Coker and company would be making a certain trip to Blacksburg. Looking back, if any attempt to limit school publicity was ever made (a highly unimaginable and extremely ludicrous feat in its own right), it sure didn't help that throughout the fall, the heralded and ever-popular ESPN Gameday crew came to Blacksburg for the first time in five years, twice. Hokie Hype was going through the roof, and there were no signs of it stopping anytime soon.

Meanwhile in the BCS, with the end of the season within sight, controversy was brewing on the thought regarding USC, Texas, and Virginia Tech all finishing the year with untainted records. The difference in strength of schedule between VT and Texas was razor thin, and talks arose as to who would play for a title, had the three-way tie been played out. Statistics and probability aside however, priority number one for the Hokies was, if they were to make any case at deserving a stab at a national championship, to make a strong showing come November 5 against ‘The U’.

Going into the highly publicized meeting with Miami, the Hokies were undefeated at 8-0, and the Hurricanes, under rookie quarterback Kyle Wright, were riding high as well, standing at 6-1 -- their only defeat being a three-point loss to in-state rival Florida State. On top of the impressive records, both Tech and Miami boasted the right as the top two defenses in the nation, respectively.

Though Tech had the better record going in, they were simply overwhelmed by the Hurricane defensive line, as they tore Vick and the Hokie offense to pieces, causing six turnovers from the Hokie playmaker, alone. From the opening kickoff to the final whistle, Miami dominated all 60 minutes, and had pulled out a much-more-lopsided victory than the final score of 27-7 indicated.

Immediately following that first loss for the Hokies, as expected, Tech went straight to being thrown in that pool of overrated programs in college football, and deservingly so -- their inability to win the big game came back to haunt the Hokies, and in regards to the BCS picture left them on the outside looking in.

When I look back at this time and moment of the 2005 season, as cliché as it sounds, that specific loss to Miami truly hurt my heart, and let me be the first to admit that I am not one to totally preoccupy my life so much with sports to the point where a loss during the regular season gets to me personally. To some that may come off as not being the diehard fan, but I see it as not getting too caught up in the physical endeavors of 11 grown men on a stretch of grass. On that note, however, that defeat was an extreme low-point during my tenure as a Virginia Tech student. It hit hard. Perhaps a simple explanation of the events leading up to the game would highlight what this game meant to not only myself, but the university as well.

In the week leading up to that game, all throughout campus there was that certain indescribable atmosphere -- the city of Blacksburg was literally booming and bustling with excitement towards the Saturday night matchup. Not only was the increased interest towards the two teams' meeting found amongst the students, but between the faculty and staff as well. Many professors, who usually made it a point to keep class lectures 'strictly business', were in this case, constantly talking amongst students in class about all things related to the approaching Saturday Night Showdown. Even at the dining halls, employees serving meals or working the cash register always seemed to work in a line or two regarding the game to the students as they came and went. All anyone seemed to be concerned with was the upcoming Miami game itself -- nothing more, nothing less.

With so much hype surrounding this one game with monumental consequences and ramifications to the rankings of each program, if you were hoping to attend, yet were not a season ticket holder or a student fortunate enough to land a ticket, then basically you were SOL in finding a seat in Lane without having to pay an arm and a leg. In fact, friends of mine amongst the stadium at kickoff said scalpers were, no joke, charging a full $1,000 for individual tickets spread throughout the upper to nosebleed sections, and people were paying. The public's desire to see this game in person was ridiculous.

Unfortunately for every ticket holder in attendance, there wasn't much of a game to be played, as all 65,000+ in attendance at Lane and millions nationwide watching on Primetime ESPN witnessed Frank Beamer's lineup get completely worked by a better, more determined Miami team from start to finish, erasing all hopes of a undefeated season and any remote chance at playing for a national title.

What ensued amongst the Virginia Tech campus following that loss was a complete and utter reversal in the overall demeanor of every single Blacksburg student and resident alike to the point where crowd-chant starters, notoriously known as the loudest and rowdiest of the diehard Hokie fans, were walking back to their cars, dorms, or buses with their heads hung low, in silence amongst throngs of depressed crowds everywhere. There would be no post-game rally, parties or celebrations, and rightfully so -- for all there was for the majority was just a dismal, disappointing ending to a dismal, disappointing showing by the home team on a night where they couldn't have played any worse.

Campus the following morning was a ghost town from dawn until dusk, compromising what arguably could have been considered the gloomiest day ever at Virginia Tech, period. The streets were pure silence. There were no cars, no students, no nothing -- hardly the case on the weekends. I specifically took note of this when I strolled through to get a quick bite at one of the on-campus dining halls. I never spent less time finding a parking spot or waiting to get my meal -- it seemed everyone was spending the day sulking up the loss in their room, depressed beyond any immediate types of consolement following such a devastating event.

The university would eventually return to normalcy two weeks later following a bye week with a 52-14 drubbing of bitter rival Virginia for the Commonwealth Cup and in-state bragging rights. Reflecting back on the Miami loss though, it seems unfathomable how the effects of just one game made such an impact on the university, and unfortunately, things would only get worse. Only a month later Hokie fans would have to witness the team's defeat at the hands of Florida State in the Conference Championship, in addition to having to experience the eventual dismissal of quarterback Marcus Vick from the program once again.

Skipping ahead to present day, foregoing a few minor developments for the Hokies during the off-season, the Hokies' ranking will be heavily affected by the loss of several key starters and a lack of experience all throughout the offensive depth chart. Despite that, however, led by a strong defensive rating, the Hokies should land a spot in the preseason rankings ranging in the mid-twenties, and with their relatively easy schedule this year, could go as well as 12-0, that's right, 12-0.

With that being said though, we'll save the reasoning behind that claim for another time, for as for right now, let's shift gears back to Ciriminiello and his article -- do have a peak at it.
Since 1971, 31 college football programs have graced the AP’s preseason Top 20—Top 25 beginning in 1989—at least 10 different years. Some have routinely lived up to their expectations, rewarding voters by either meeting or exceeding summer expectations with a solid season. Many others over the last 35 years, however, have not been as kind to the pollsters, often fading quickly and failing to meet their advanced billing.

Beyond being just interesting factoids and fodder for message boards, it’s relevant to understand which programs have historically received the benefit of the doubt in August, only to tank once the one meaningful barometer of success—live action—begins in September.

Preseason polls are vital because they establish expectations and give those chosen schools a decided head start in the race for a national championship. And if Behemoth U. is getting a perennial lofty ranking because of its reputation and national notoriety, well, that’s cause for a closer look. There’s little debate that biases exist in the rankings, but until preseason and postseason polls are compared side-by-side, it’s difficult to truly and tangibly know which schools have been overrated and which have earned their station on the charts.

For this exercise, we’ve sampled AP rankings from the last 35 years and are only evaluating schools that have been recognized in 10 or more preseason polls. Trying to cull some meaning out of, say, Kansas, Indiana or any other school that makes a once-every-decade cameo in summer rankings would prove fruitless.

Composite score represents the average annual number of spots a school's final ranking fell below its preseason ranking since 1971.

The 31 teams that have been in at least ten preseason AP polls

The Most Underrated Team Has Been...

31. Miami – The ‘Canes were a little late getting to this party, but once they arrived in the early 1980s, they were here to stay. The 1983 team traveled from No. 20 to No. 1, and kicked off a 10-year stretch in which Miami finished in the Top 10 eight times. Since that championship season, they’ve also crashed and burned just once. That was the one-year rebuilding period of 1997, when the ‘Canes went 5-6, lost by 47 to Florida State and had a rare postseason without a bowl game.

*Composite Score: -2.41

29. Virginia Tech – The Hokies’ first preseason AP ranking didn’t occur until 1994, but they’ve attracted enough attention to pick up the requisite 10 mentions to qualify for this debate. They’ve replaced spectacular with steady, notching at least seven wins and a bowl berth in each of the last 13 seasons. The bottom has yet to fall out since they started getting respect in the polls, and they’ve had just enough double-digit jumps in the polls to manufacture a very respectable composite score.

*Composite Score: -2.70

The Most Overrated Team Has Been...

1. Michigan State – No matter how good they look or how many starters are back, do not do it. Do not champion the Spartans, America’s most overrated college football program. Resist that temptation and you’ll prove wiser than your peers in the end. Ten times since 1971, Michigan State has been ranked in the preseason. In nine of those years, they ended the season unranked. And there are some real clunkers in the school vault, including Bobby Williams’ last team, which opened 2002 at No. 17, yet could only manage four victories and a host of off-field missteps.

*Composite Score: -19.80

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